© doug Olson - Fotolia.com
At this time of year, the shorter days and bad weather is enough to make anyone feel down. For many of us, a natural response is to go into hibernation mode – staying indoors, turning up the central heating, socialising less and turning to comfort food.
But this is the worse thing you can do. Around seven per cent of people in the UK are thought to be affected by seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of winter depression, and around 17 per cent by a milder form of the condition, often called the winter blues.
Although the exact cause of this seasonal depression is unknown, many studies suggest it is related to reduced levels of sunlight during the winter months.
Having a close family member with SAD also increases someone's chances of developing the condition, and women appear to be more susceptible than men. People with a family history of depression may also be more at risk.
People with SAD may have higher levels of the sleep hormone melatonin in winter, but treatments which alter melatonin symptoms don't cure the condition, suggesting other factors are involved.
Low levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain which affects mood, appetite and sleep have also been implicated in SAD. Serotonin can also be affected by sunlight. The shorter winter days may cause a reduction in serotonin levels, which may in turn lead to depressive symptoms.
Symptoms usually begin around September. They may be mild to begin with, but can become more severe further on in the season.
For some people they can be particularly severe during the months of December, January and February.
Symptoms of SAD include:
- Lethargy and fatigue
- Depression – generally feeling sad, low and weepy
- Mood swings
- Needing more sleep than usual, difficulty in staying awake
- Lacking interest in usual activities
- Loss of interest in sex
- Eating more than usual, with cravings for carbohydrates and sweet foods which may lead to weight gain
With SAD, the symptoms are cyclical - they go away and start again at the same time every year, usually from September to March, unlike other types of depression.
People who suffer from depression often wake through the night. If someone has SAD, they may oversleep in the morning but still feel sleepy during the day.
With SAD or any other type of depression, it is important that the person gets help from their GP. There are a range of treatments - light therapy, talking therapies, medication - which can be used to improve the symptoms of SAD.
With SAD and the winter blues, it's important to resist the temptation to stay indoors. A healthy diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables, being physically and mentally active, getting outdoors in the daylight hours as much as you can and staying in touch with your family friends can also help to stave off symptoms.
More information: Seasonal Affective Disorder Association