Don’t be SAD this winter

SAD or ‘the winter blues’

Let’s be real…summer is over. Winter woolies are out and we embrace the cold. Hearty stews, wild weather walks and crackling fires all have charm. However, there’s a little catch this season… Don’t be SAD this winter.

Globally, around 10% of people suffer from SAD. This is short for Seasonal Affective Disorder. It’s a form of (seasonal) depression.  SAD is also know as “winter depression” or “winter blues”. It seems linked to a lack of sunshine.  With SAD, symptoms start to develop in autumn. Then, they gradually worsen as winter progresses. So, get equipped so you won’t be SAD this winter

Winter’s subtle changes: Cravings and doonas

Winter changes our needs and bodies. You’ll want more sweet and starchy foods. Gaining weight is not uncommon. Sleeping becomes more important; all you want to do is snuggle up under your doona. Science thinks this dates back to how our ancestors hibernated in winter. After all, this was a season of hardship in ‘Caveman’ times.  Of course, you conserve energy by sleeping when foods is scarce. More weight and more sleep reduced the need for hunting and gathering. Now, we don’t have to worry about lean times. However, that ingrained, ancient pattern of behaviour stays.

Don’t be SAD this winter

Apart from wanting to stay “in your cave”, you may feel unmotivated, lethargic and more tired than usual. You may not understand why, and neither does your doctor. SAD is under- or misdiagnosed, potentially even more so in Australia. After all, we’re “the country where the sun always shines.” In northern areas of Europe, the United States and Canada, SAD affects an estimated 5-23% of the population.

Sunlight, where are you?

In Australia, data about affected people is unknown. However, it may well match these numbers. This is especially likely for the southern states. The amount of winter sunlight in Victoria and Tasmania is amazingly low. It can be as little as 3.8 hours per day. Not as bad as the United Kingdom, but still… There, from December to February an average of 2.1 hours of sunlight is common. But still, just over 3 hours isn’t much. Imagine you’re stuck indoors at work during those few hours. You’ll get no direct sunlight at all, perhaps for days on end.

Old knowledge, backed up by modern-day research

Hippocrates, the forefather of modern medicine, was smart. He mentioned lack of sunlight as a cause for lethargy, back in 400 BC. Before him, the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs practiced “sun worship,”. South American Incas did the same. Without research, they recognized the importance of sunlight. 

In modern medicine, SAD was first and formally recognized in 1984, by Norman Rosenthal. This professor at the American National Institute of Mental Health suffered his own ‘winter blues’.  Miraculously, he found that Light Therapy helped. Further research was done in ‘cold’ countries. There, grey skies are dominant for six months of the year.

It’s all in the science of sunlight

First of all, lack of sunlight contributes to SAD. The pineal gland, located behind the forehead, reacts to sunlight. It is responsible for the production and release of hormones such as melatonin. This hormone is produced and released under the influence of light: made during the day, and released when darkness surrounds us – this hormone facilitates sleep.

Brain biochemistry

Secondly, biochemical pathways convert melatonin to serotonin. Serotonin makes us feel good and levels are closely linked to mood changes. This is why antidepressants such as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) are sometimes used for SAD patients. These prescription medicines curb depression and SAD by keeping serotonin levels balanced.

Sun, sun, oh glorious sun

Finally, sunlight also assists with the formation of vitamin D in the body. Low exposure to sunlight encourages low vitamin D levels. Science proves a link between low levels of vitamin D and forms of depression. Modern-day lifestyles may not enable outdoor activities, especially in winter. Low vitamin D can also occur when dietary intake is inadequate.

Don’t be SAD this winter

The medical world often treats SAD with anti-depressants. As mentioned, light therapy is effective. Want to be pro-active to avoid these winter blues? Firstly, eat plenty oily fish or take cod liver oil. Both will provide vitamin D. Even better, make an appointment and get your needs assessed properly. That way, you avoid the need for chemical antidepressants. After all, these may destabilise overall health. Vitamin D and other specific nutrients can be more effective, without side effects. On a final note, be relieved to know that symptoms of SAD disappear in most people once spring starts. Book now, and don’t be SAD this winter

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