November in 2 sentences:
- “I cant believe it’s so dark”
- “I’m really tired already ”
(+ does anyone have hand cream?)
I have uttered that sentence countless times in the past 3 weeks. Despite experiencing 3 previous European winters, it seems I have not yet acclimatized to this experience. Many Dutch locals have told me to give up on this pipe dream.
The increase of these phrases can be a signal to take a little more care of yourself during this season. SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), or in a milder form the “winter blues”, is reported to affect up to 6% and 13% of the population in the UK respectively. Many more report significant, although not so disabling, mood changes in the colder months.
So apart from missing Aperol’s on the terrace, what causes this phenomenon and how you can act against it?
The mean age of presentation of SAD is 27 years, and it tends to happen more frequently in women than men. So, if you are a female in this group, live far away from the equator and have experienced (or have a close family member that has experienced) mood disorders with seasonal changes, you may be at higher risk.
Kind of obvious, yes, but how does the decreasing light have such an impact on your mood? As with most mood disorders, it is chemical. During the summer months, levels of a protein called SERT, which can decrease the activity of Serotonin (the happy hormone) are kept low with the abundance of light. When the days get shorter, SERT becomes more abundant and increases its effect on Serotonin suppression. A study in the Netherlands showed an increase in suicide rates in January, just after Christmas and winter vacation period.
Melatonin, is another hormone affected by winter. Melatonin’s sleep-inducing effect, is triggered by darkness — increasing drowsiness. The sudden changes in these two hormones with time/light differences can impact your Circadian rhythm, basically making you feel as if you have post Atlantic jet lag.
Vitamin D is known to affect Serotonin levels, which as mentioned plays a huge role in depression and mental health. Although the direct effects of Vitamin D supplementation on depression are debated, other factors such as musculoskeletal health and bone strength are good reasons to check if your levels are in the optimal range. This is particularly true if your ability for Vitamin D synthesis is further reduced in the winter months, as in the case for those who may be house bound, have darker skin, or have most of their skin covered by choice of clothing.
It’s 2019, the time to just “tough it out” is over. So, as the days continue to get shorter, what should you do if you think you may be at risk of SAD this year? Contact your medical professional, and have a conversation over diagnosis and treatment options which include;
- Natural sunlight — Sit by a window or try to take a lunch break stroll
- Anti-depressant medication
- Light Therapy
- Vitamin D supplementation; &
Keeping an eye on other factors impacting your mental health, such as a healthy diet, regular exercise and connecting with loved ones, is always necessary, especially in the winter months. SAD symptom awareness, and reaching out to those you think might need a little help are small actions that have a positive impact on someone’s mental health, and life.
If not you, it’s very likely someone you know, will be a little sadder over the coming season.