Friday, November 23, 2012

Tis the Season to be S.A.D.

Winter is the time for Christmas cheer when everyone gets excited to eat their body weight in food and cosy up on the sofa to watch Murder on the Orient Express. But this isn't for all people, yes you get your usual Chrismas Grinch who has a phobia of Tinsel but some people dread winter before it's even begun.

The winter blues is a somewhat colloquial term for when the weather is getting us down and we've forgotten that daylight isn't always laced in cloud and washed down with rain. Feeling low from time to time in winter is perfectly normal but some people get a much more serious seasonal depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or more conveniently - SAD.

SAD affects over 12 million people in the Northern Hemisphere and 2 million in the UK alone, yet it is surprisingly unknown. It is found predominantly in people between their late teens to thirties and symptoms are similar to depression:

 - a lack of energy during the day to get anything done
 - sleeping problems from too little to too much
 - prone to illness
 - mood changes - manic stages in Autumn and Spring which means SAD is often wrongly diagnosed as manic depression
 - Anxiety and social problems - panic attacks, stressed, doesn't want to see people
 - loss of labido
 - Craving of carbohydrates and weight gain
 - alcohol and drug abuse

In winter it is likely to wake up while it's dark and by the time you leave work/school it's dark again. Before the invention of the light bulb people would would sleep when it was dark and be active when it was light outside, simple. Nowadays we revolve our lives around a rota to keep up with someone else's demands and we ignore our natural body rhythms. Light tells our bodies that it's not time to sleep and we trick our brains on a day to day basis using laptops screens, tv screens and light bulbs. SAD is becoming more common and I predict it will become more-so in the future thanks to the facebook generation and the growing habit of staying up late in front of a computer screen.

You'd think all this artificial light would mean people shouldn't be getting SAD but this isn't the case. It is just meaning we are not getting "real light" from the biggest light bulb there is, the sun. Two chemicals in the brain are thought to effect SAD: melatonin and seretonin. Melatonin is related to our sleep cycle and high levels of it make us sleepy. Suffers of SAD have often described a need to hibernate over winter Studies on melatonin production in sufferers shows that they produce a higher-than-normal level of melanonin in Winter, similar to hibernating animals. People with SAD will struggle to get out of bed on the sunny side of lunchtime, if at all during the day. Seretonin is a happy chemical and it is produced in bucket loads when we have a really good hug. Sufferers of SAD and depression have lower levels of seretonin and it is thought that the seretonin in these people may not actually work properly.

Most people just have a mild form of SAD but at least 2% of the UK have a much more serious form of the condition where they cannot study or hold down a job over the Winter. Treatment is available but there is currently no real cure other than willpower. One of the most effective forms of treatment is the use of a lightbox which uses a special lightbulb giving off 2500 lux -10,000 lux (to put that in perspective since you don't really need to know what  a lux is: an office gives off about 400 lux but the sun ranges from 32000 - 100000lux). There are several different models but can be quite expensive and they are not currently available on the NHS. However more affordable models in the form of "sunrise clocks" are now available. The light can be switched on at a desk while you do work etc and simulates a little bit of sunshine indoors and has been proven to vastly improve symptoms when used daily.

To just prevent the winter blues or to help reduce the effects of SAD there are a few tricks you can live by:

 - When the sun is out, GET OUTSIDE!   I know here in Scotland even if the sun's out it doesn't seem strong enough to sunburn a ginger without their suncream, but it will make you feel better even if you don't notice it instantly. Try to get outside at least once a day while there is day light.Stick a note on your laptop to remind you.  If all else fails book a holiday to somewhere warm and sunny for a few weeks, after winning the lottery that is.

 - Exercise - This can help tick off two things at once, go a run or a cycle outside but if you prefer running in a room full of body builders then that's fine too. As we are all told, exercise releases endorphins which do make you feel good afterwards even if you feel like and asthmatic sloth in the process. Plus if you keep it up you'll start to get addicted and miss it when it's gone. Eating those green things they call vegetables helps too.

  Ignore stress in Winter - Now I know most people have exams around Christmas and they can't really be ignored but make that your biggest stress of the season. Plan ahead in winter, just like you were going to hibernate: get your presents sorted early and stock up the cupboards. Major life-changing plans should definitely be put off for a time when you will be feeling much more proactive, that is if you can sometimes things happen just when you don't want them too.

 - Morning Sunshine! - Try to get in a routine of waking up before the afternoon, you will get more out of your day and might even get outside. It may sound simple but in the height of winter it can seem so horrible outside there is no point getting out of bed. There is no use feeling sorry for yourself because everyone else will be pitying you, and not in the good way. In the end nobody is going to drag your carcass out of the bed but yourself.

Although SAD is prevalent in high northern and southern latitudes, you probably don't have it.  You probably have the "winter blues" I mentioned at the start, but if you are worried then go and see your GP or a counselling service.

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