A lighter way to enjoy the autumn and winter months

I am definitely a morning person and in the spring and summer months I am up and wide awake while many people are still snoozing, this morning it was noticeably much darker and whilst I was still up and ready to go I wasn’t quite filled with the same kind of energy that I seem to buzz with when it is lighter.

I have written about seasonal affective disorder (SAD) a few times in the past and last year I wrote two specific posts ‘Beating the winter blues’ part I and II.  It is worth reading these if you want more information about SAD.  Since SAD is such a pertinent topic for many people in the UK I thought it was worth highlighting a few of the important factors again today.  For those of you who know that SAD is an issue it is well worth preparing now before the days get even shorter and British summer time ends on 25th October.

SADA Seasonal Affective Disorder Association is the UKs only support organisation that is dedicated to SAD.  SADA say that(1)SAD is a type of winter depression that affects an estimated 7% of the UK population every winter between September and April, in particular during December, January and February.  It is caused by a biochemical imbalance in the hypothalamus [part of the brain] due to the shortening of daylight hours and the lack of sunlight in winter.  For many people SAD is a seriously disabling illness, preventing them from functioning normally without continuous medical treatment.  For others, it is a mild but debilitating condition causing discomfort but not severe suffering. We call this subsyndromal SAD or ‘winter blues.’ It is estimated that a further 17% of the UK population have this milder form of condition”.

The symptoms of SAD include the following(2) but it is important to note that for some people without diagnosed SAD (known as sub-syndromal SAD), symptoms such as tiredness, lethargy, sleep and eating problems occur, but depression and anxiety are absent or mild. 

Low mood, worse than and different from normal sadness
Negative thoughts and feelings
Guilt and loss of self-esteem
Sometimes hopelessness and despair
Sometimes apathy and inability to feel

Sleep Problems
The need to sleep more
A tendency to oversleep
Difficulty staying awake during the day and/or disturbed sleep with very early morning wakening

Fatigue, often incapacitating, making it very difficult or impossible to carry out normal routines

Over Eating
Craving for carbohydrates and sweet foods leading to an increase in weight

Cognitive Function
Difficulty with concentration and memory
The brain does not work as well, or as quickly

Social Problems
Finding it harder to be with people
Stress is harder to deal with

Loss of Libido
Less interest in sex and physical contact

Sudden Mood Changes in Spring
Sharp change in mood
Some experience agitation and restlessness and/or a short period of
hypomania (over activity)
No dramatic mood change but a gradual loss of winter symptoms

Antidepressants are often prescribed to SAD sufferers but many are willing to take these due to side-effects.  There are many natural alternatives, please also visit the earlier posts mentioned at the start of this piece for more information.

Light Therapy 

Light therapy has been shown to be effective in up to 85 per cent of diagnosed cases. That is, exposure, for up to four hours per day (average 1-2 hours) to very bright light, at least ten times the intensity of ordinary domestic lighting.  Ordinary lighting in the home is not bright enough for the treatment of SAD.  Ordinary lightbulbs tend to produce light with an intensity of about 200-500 lux (lux is a way of measuring light emission).   The minimum light intensity necessary to treat SAD is around 2500 lux, but a SAD light box can emit up to 10,000 lux.  The intensity of a bright summer day can be 100,000 lux (3).

Within four days of treatment with light therapy a positive difference in SAD symptoms may be noticed and this effect is likely to continue with every day use.  Last year I wrote about the sunrise alarm clock and sunrise system.  These usually consist of a unit with a light that gradually increases in intensity over a 30 minute period until it is at it’s brightest when an alarm will go off.  The thinking behind this is that in the winter we often wake up with a start when the alarm goes sounds, but it is still very dark outside.  Our bodies awake with a shock and then we turn on a bright light, we miss the normal cues to the body that occur with dawn and increasing light.  If we wake up with gradual, dawn light our natural body clock (what is known as our circadian rhythm), is less disrupted.  The medical studies have proved very positive with some indication that the dawn simulation sunrise alarm clocks, are as good as light boxes at helping mood in SAD sufferers.

In fact I am thinking of buying a sunrise system this year, I don’t think I suffer from full blow SAD but I do notice a difference in my energy levels in the darker months and bright light may well help us all during the winter (4).  In addition to light therapy a healthy diet, exercise and vitamin D may also help SAD sufferers – information on these factors can be found in my previous postsSADA produce an information pack available for £5.00 from their website, it contains lots of valuable information and may well be worth purchasing if you are wanting to know more about SAD and the available treatment options.

(1) Statistics from the SADA website: http://www.sada.org.uk/what-is-SAD.html
(2)Symptom list from the SADA website: http://www.sada.org.uk/symptoms-of-SAD.html
(3)Information adapted from http://www.sada.org.uk/SAD-treatment.html
(4) Partonen T & Lonnqvist J.  2000.  Bright light improves vitality and alleviates distress in healthy people.  J Affect Disord.  57:55-61
Written by Ani Kowal