What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
Seasonal Affective Disorder, also referred to as SAD, is a condition that affects over half a million people in the UK. This condition impacts upon the mental well-being of people during the winter months particularly during January and February when the days begin to shorten. If you tend to feel really down during winter or find it hard to get going during the winter months, you may think that this is a natural reaction to the cold and dark days, but you may actually be suffering from SAD.
Sufferers of SAD often experience low mood, varied degree of depression, loss of energy, sleep problems, irritability, increased appetite, strong cravings for carbohydrates and sweet foods as well as headaches and muscle pain. The defining characteristics of SAD are that the symptoms return annually and go away during other seasons.
Seasonal Affective Disorder can affect any age and gender, although it is more common in females, and it can have a profound effect on the person’s personal and professional life.
SAD is more prominent in the northern climes of the world and whilst the causal factor is not fully understood, what is clear is that it seems to be related to the amount of sunlight. Your body’s circadian rhythms are regulated by the amount of daylight. In the northern latitude countries, during winter, the days become shorter and we have less daylight hours. This lack of daylight appears to have an effect on the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus plays a key role in numerous and complex functions within our bodies including hormone cycles, sleep and wake up cycle times as well as our emotional state.
All hormonal glands communicate with each other using hormones as chemical messengers. Any imbalance in any hormone can therefore have a wide impact on the body. In the case of SAD, the hypothalamus, the adrenals and the brain are all interlinked through a complex series of chemical reactions with the result of increased melatonin during the day leading to the feelings of lethargy and a lack of motivation, and a reduction in the production of serotonin which is the mood elevating chemical in the brain.
What causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
The symptoms of SAD are very similar to those suffering from depression and include:
- Low mood
- Lack of concentration
- Sleep disturbances
- Pessimistic thoughts
- Low levels of motivation
- Self neglect
- Difficulty in coping with everyday situations
The symptoms may completely disrupt an individual’s life during the winter months causing them to become withdrawn and in many cases avoid contact with others. Many sufferers do not exhibit all the symptoms of SAD and even if they do, the symptoms are less severe. This milder form of SAD is often referred to as the “winter blues”.
How to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder
Seasonal Affective Disorder is often treated by the use of one or a combination of treatment strategies including light therapy, anti-depressants and some form of counselling. If your symptoms are severe then seek professional advice. If your symptoms are milder then there are other options which include nutritional or herbal supplements as outlined below.
Those with a milder form of SAD may benefit greatly from the use of a herbal supplement such as Magnolia Rhodiola Complex. This supplement contains a potent extract of magnolia which works to physically relax muscles and body, alleviating nervousness and some of the symptoms of anxiety. Equally important is that magnolia extracts have been shown to help reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol. It is the increase in levels of cortisol in the body that prevents the uptake of the nerve calming neuro-nutrient serotonin by the brain.
At times of stress, the adrenals place a huge demand for the water soluble B and C vitamins. Both these vitamins are required for the manufacture of anti-stress hormones. Any deficiency in this causes stress in the adrenals glands themselves resulting in greater amounts of cortisol production. Additionally, vitamins B and C have been shown to directly affect the neurotransmitters in the brain including serotonin and dopamine which are the nerve calming and mood elevating hormones. Evidence suggests that both these vitamins achieve balance in the body by metabolising chemicals known to cause anxiety and depression. Since both these vitamins are water soluble, they are not retained in the bloodstream for any length of time making supplementation vital during times of stress. A supplement that I tend to recommend is Terra Nova’s Vitamin B and Vitamin C capsules. This supplement provides all the B and C vitamins in a food base for maximum absorption and hence utilisation by the body.
It is unfortunate that people who suffer from this disorder have in the past been told to “pull their socks up” or to simply get on with their lives. SAD is a recognised disorder and you can take charge of it to help alleviate the symptoms.