Tag Archives: Seasonal Affective Disorder

Why do we suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

Hello there! I hope you’re well and getting into the swing of your light routine? Finally, here is instalment number two of my ‘who, why, what, where, when and how’ of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and Winter Blues. It’s another long one, but I hope you’ll find it interesting! 😀

In this post I’ll be covering a couple of the accepted theories of why people get SAD and Winter Blues / Winter Depression. This is my own understanding, based on what I’ve read over the years and a little background reading I’ve done for this post. It’s taken me quite a while to write, as I keep changing my mind what to put in! I don’t want to overwhelm you with too much info, but wanted to give you enough too. As always, do let me know what you think?

Do we actually know what causes SAD and Winter Blues?

In short, no. The first thing to say is that nobody seems to really know what causes SAD and Winter Blues! There’s a lot of theories, but it’s likely that there’s a complex interplay of factors that determine whether an individual develops SAD or not.

The most commonly held theory is that a lack of exposure to daylight in the late autumn to early spring months affects the brain’s production of the hormone melatonin and the neurotransmitter serotonin.

The body has an internal body clock, known as the circadian rhythm. It regulates sleep/wake cycles, appetite, digestion, mood and many other functions. This explains why SAD affects us in so many different ways.

What we have to remember is that we are animals and in evolutionary terms our bodies haven’t caught up with the lifestyles we’ve adopted as humans. Before we learned to artificially light our homes, people went to bed when it became dark and woke when the sun rose. They also spent a lot more time outdoors and had more physical jobs.

 

SAD and melatonin

The brain responds to decreased light by increasing production of the hormone melatonin, which signals to the body that it’s time to sleep. In the morning, when light reaches the eyes, melatonin levels begin to decrease and the hormone cortisol is released. This gives us the get-up-and-go that we need to start the day.

Red traditional alarm clock - these can be difficult for SAD sufferersIn the depths of winter, when many of us need to get up while it’s still dark, the body hasn’t received the correct signals to wake up. This is why it can be a real wrench to get up and you may feel shocked out of sleep by a traditional alarm clock – your body simply isn’t ready to be awake! When you think about it, this way of waking is likely to activate your fight or flight response. You wake up stressed before you’ve even started your day! A dawn simulator can help with this, waking you up in a more natural way.

But the problem isn’t only to do with waking. On very dull days, your levels of melatonin can stay high throughout the day, leading to those feelings of lethargy and sleepiness that you might recognise all-too-well. Before I was diagnosed with SAD, I would return from college and want to go straight to bed – I couldn’t keep my eyes open!

SAD and serotonin

The neurotransmitter, serotonin, is also thought to have a key role to play in SAD, as it appears to in other types of depression. Researchers have found that levels of serotonin can vary from day-to-day and across the year, with levels markedly lower in winter. People with lower levels of serotonin appear to be more likely to experience symptoms of all kinds of depression.

Reading about how to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs (Dr. Simon N. Young, 2007), this theory makes sense to me. If you’re anything like me, in winter you’ll be less likely to go outside at lunchtime, or whenever. Often eating at my desk means I move my bones less, get less natural light and I’m probably eating stodge, too. Carb cravings are a common symptom. I mean – who really fancies a salad in the middle of winter? Certainly not me! Haha – yes, yes, I’m aware that I don’t always follow my own advice! 😀

So, if light, exercise and a healthy diet are major natural ways of increasing serotonin production, then it would seem to follow that not doing/having these things may cause you to feel rubbish. At least, that’s how I understand it! 

Some further reading

As always, if you haven’t already, I’d recommend you have a look at the following excellent articles about SAD. They explain a bit more of the why in more medical terms than I have done:
NHS
Mind

If you’re interested in doing a bit more digging around into theory, here’s a few other theories that caught my eye:

People who suffer from SAD have an ‘unhelpful’ way of controlling serotonin –
Seasonal difference in brain serotonin transporter binding predicts symptom severity in patients with Seasonal Affective Disorder – Mahon et al (2014)

People who suffer from SAD may have retinal sensitivity anomalies –
Evidence of a Biological Effect of Light Therapy on the Retina of Patients with Seasonal Affective Disorder – Marie-Pier Lavoie,Raymond W. Lam,Guylain Bouchard,Alexandre Sasseville,Marie-Claude Charron,Anne-Marie Gagné,Philippe Tremblay,Marie-Josée Filteau,Marc Hébert (2009), Biological Psychiatry, Elsevier

People who suffer from SAD have lower levels of cortisol production in winter –
Seasonal differences in the diurnal pattern of cortisol secretion in healthy participants and those with self-assessed seasonal affective disorder – Thorn, Lisa and Evans, Philip D. and Cannon, Anne and Hucklebridge, Frank and Clow, Angela (2011), Psychoneuroendocrinology

An ongoing debate…

There’s a lot of debate still ongoing, though, as many of the theories don’t give absolute or satisfactory answers. So for example, suppressing melatonin doesn’t ‘cure’ SAD. Anti-depressants don’t work for everybody. Light therapy works for around 85% of people. It really does seem that individual differences can play a big part. So you may be more at risk of developing SAD if you or your family have a history of depression, or if you’ve been under chronic or sudden stress. If you suffer from depression that isn’t seasonal, it can feel worse in the winter.

Having said that, there does seem to be strong evidence to support the theories surrounding melatonin and serotonin having a key role to play. Correspondingly, there’s also strong evidence to support light therapy. If you want to do some more reading still, have a look at Lumie’s page of research abstracts. SADA members also receive monthly e-bulletins and longer newsletters three times per year which contain scientific news on SAD and Winter Blues.

I hope that this will have been a helpful post for you. Do you think there’s anything I need to add? What other theories have you read?

Take care,

– Neens –

Image credit
Alarm clock: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/alarm-clock-1621256

SAD basics – where to start?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and its milder form, Winter Blues (also known sometimes as Winter Depression, or medically as Sub-syndromal SAD) affects over a quarter of the UK population*. Does that surprise you? It did me! So even if you don’t suffer from one of these conditions yourself, it’s highly likely that someone close to you does. Read on to help you get up to speed with some SAD basics.

Eeyore looking sad and Tigger bouncingOne of my favourite ways to describe SAD is through these little fellas; Tigger and Eeyore. I tried out this analogy on a friend once and he loved it!

SAD is thought to be caused by a lack of light. During the late autumn and winter months, the shorter days and lack of sunlight can affect chemical levels in your brain, making you feel down, irritable, lethargic and unsociable – a bit like Eeyore. But in the spring and summer months you feel more ‘yourself’, and even in the depths of winter, a sunny day can bring out the Tigger in you! Some people even experience mania-type symptoms once spring comes round, known as Hypomania. That’s probably where everyone’s energy comes from for the big spring-clean! 😉 For a bit of fun, I found this quiz to identify which Winnie the Pooh character you’re most like – I turned out to be Kanga! 🙂 

SAD basics – the facts

SAD is a type of depression. I know some people aren’t comfortable with this description, but medically, they do sit on the same scale. What differentiates SAD from other types of depression is that it has a very definite seasonal pattern. You normally will have experienced symptoms in a particular season that disappear reliably in another season for three consecutive years before you would be diagnosed with SAD.

There are also other, rarer types of SAD that people suffer from, such as Summer SAD. This site mostly addresses Winter SAD and Winter Blues, as the most common form of the condition and the kind that I suffer from. Other tell-tale differences are that unlike ‘classic’ depression, you tend to want to sleep and eat more (usually carbs) when you suffer from SAD, whereas with ‘classic’ depression, people often lose their appetite and find it difficult to sleep. This is a very individual condition though, so it’s always worth checking any symptoms with your doctor, rather than self-diagnosing.

For interest, though, you might be wondering what are the other symptoms of SAD? Well, I mentioned some of the main ones already, but a few of the most common others include:

  • Bread with a heart cut out of the middleDisturbed sleep patterns 
  • Loss of interest in things you normally enjoy and social withdrawal
  • Craving carbohydrates and sweet foods (comfort food!)
  • Loss of libido
  • Anxiety
  • Difficulty concentrating/feeling fuzzy-minded
  • Lowered immune system in winter

Managing SAD

There isn’t a ‘cure’ for SAD or Winter Blues. However, many people can successfully manage their symptoms using light therapy. The SAD Association estimates that this will work for around 85% of sufferers. Your doctor may also recommend treatment with medication and talking therapies. 

You’d normally use light therapy daily from the onset of your symptoms, often from around September until April when the daylight hours lengthen. The treatment involves exposure to a bright SAD light that simulates the level of light you would get on a bright spring day. How long you need to use the light for depends on the severity of your symptoms and the strength of the light. 

I whole-heartedly recommend giving light therapy a go – I have managed my symptoms since being diagnosed using a SAD light and a dawn simulator, which wakes me gently with light in the morning. I recommend dawn simulators to everyone, regardless of whether or not they suffer from SAD – they’re such a lovely way to wake up! 🙂 

I hope this introduction to some SAD basics has been helpful to you. I will write some more in-depth posts, but if you want more information on SAD and Winter Blues before then, please have a look at this NHS page and SADA’s website.

If you’re able to attend events in Newcastle upon Tyne, you can get a taste of what light therapy is all about at Little Light Room events.

What Winnie the Pooh character do you identify with? Is there something in particular that you’d like me to cover in a future post?

Take care!

-Neens x-

*http://www.theweathercompany.com/SAD%20research%20UK

Image credits:
Tigger and Eeyore: http://www.chicagonow.com/cheaper-than-therapy/2013/11/are-you-a-tigger-or-a-eeyore/
Bread: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/love-food-1306422

Happy Winter Solstice 2015… and winter sun break

Good morning! A very, very happy Winter Solstice and festive greetings to you! 🙂

I hope that you’re well and not feeling too frazzled in the run up to Christmas? Well, Winter Solstice is finally here and I’m as always, probably as excited by the prospect of lengthening days as I am by the prospect of a jolly old man in red visiting all the good people in the world! I’m looking forward to spending time with family and friends in Leeds, and back in Newcastle before I start a new job in the New Year. It’s been a very exciting few weeks!

I promised you I’d write and tell you how I felt after having a winter break at the end of November. I thought I’d wait until Solstice to really assess this. And the conclusion? I would go earlier or later.

I had a wonderful time in Gran Canaria with one of my best friends and we had loads of fun. A great blend of sightseeing, partying until the wee hours and relaxing… and of course plenty of eating and drinking! 🙂

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The bright sunshine and feeling warmth on my skin again was as lovely as I’d been anticipating. But coming back to the darkest time of the year in the UK was a shock to my system I think. It was rainy and dull for a few days upon my return and my first day back felt very weird.

This wasn’t my first winter sunshine break; I’ve been to Gran Canaria in February many years ago, and I was in Dubai in January this year. I think both of those were better timings as they gave me a little boost as the days were lengthening. Alternatively, in future, I’ll go away in late September to mid-October before the days shorten too much. This is what a couple of my colleagues at SADA have done and they’ve found it helpful. I’d be interested to hear what other people think?

I hope that you have a fantastic festive break with your loved ones. Have some well-deserved rest, do the things that make you smile, keep up your light therapy (easy to neglect when out of your routine) and why not take the opportunity to get out in natural daylight come rain or shine for a walk or cycle?

With very best wishes for a happy, healthy and successful 2016,

– Neens x –

Leaving on a jet plane…

Hello!

Gran CanariaI’m heading for warmer and hopefully sunnier climes. It’s the first time I’ve done a winter break this side of Christmas and I’m not sure how it’s going to feel when I get back. But I’m taking the risk!! 😉

Speaking to other people with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), there’s mixed views whether a sunshine break can be good. Some say that it really helps them get through the winter, giving them a nice little boost. Others say that coming back to the UK winter in all its glory makes them feel worse.

So, I’d be interested to hear what other people think? Have you been on winter breaks either side of Christmas? If so, has it made your SAD or Winter Blues better or worse?

I’m going with a friend and we’re planning to have a nice mix of relaxing, sightseeing and girly nights out, so I’m super excited!

I’ve treated myself to a new, powerful SAD light that should have arrived by the time I return and I’m hoping that I can re-settle into my light routine well when I get back. I’m also calculating that there’ll only be three weeks until the winter solstice and I have nice things planned in the run up to Christmas. I know that it takes a while after the solstice to make an appreciable difference in the amount of light and I do struggle at times in January and February, but something about knowing that we’re heading in the right direction towards more light helps me. Do you feel the same?

Anyway, have a great week and I’ll see you when I’m back and let you know my thoughts on returning from a pre-Christmas winter break.

– Neens –