Seasonal affective disorder – more commonly known by its very appropriate acronym, SAD – is a curious affliction. Some two million people are thought to suffer from the condition in the UK alone, and yet the root cause remains somewhat unclear.
It is believed there’s a link between SAD and the distinct lack of available sunlight throughout winter. With the sun’s rays a vital component for the production of serotonin (the so-called happiness chemical) and melatonin (sleep chemical), as well as regulating your circadian rhythm (body clock) within, the subsequent mayhem wrought by a deficit can lead to a washing line of symptoms, including low mood, lethargy and despair, plus ravenous food cravings that see one’s weight skyrocket.
Add to this the fact that Christmas, New Year, Hanukah, Kwanzaa and more sit slap bang in the middle of winter, and SAD sufferers can very quickly be labelled a Grinch to their faces (and far worse behind their back), simply for not ho-ho-ho-ing their way through each day with festive aplomb.
But while the ailment is a little ambiguous, there are tried and tested methods to rescue yourself from your wintry funk. As a timely gift, we have assembled all manner of professionals to divulge their seasonal battle plans for conquering the winter blues – all of which are fully actionable, provided you have the necessary vigour to dust off those cake crumbs and emerge from your temple of gloom.
1. See The Light
Granted, the sun is notable by its absence in winter – which is sort of the entire problem here – but that doesn’t mean you can’t bask in those precious rays, even if it is a bit chilly.
“Reduced exposure to daylight over the winter months is thought to play a crucial role in the winter blues, as it disrupts our circadian rhythms and reduces serotonin production,” says Hannah Braye, nutritional therapist at Bio-Kult. “Making sure you get outdoors each day, even for 15 minutes on your lunch break can help, as can ensuring your work area is light and airy and sitting near windows.”
And if that’s somehow not possible, you can always outsource it to a machine, can’t you? “Light boxes, which simulate sunshine, have been shown to be effective in over 80% of diagnosed cases of SAD,” says Dr Mark Winwood, director of psychological services for AXA PPP healthcare. “Most modern light boxes emit an intensity of 10,000 lux, and treatment will take 30 mins to one hour a day. By way of comparison, the intensity of a bright summer day can be 100,000 lux.”
2. Pack Your Bags For Winter Sun
Why do 95% of people take their summer holiday during the actual summer? Ok, so the ‘Great British Summer’ being an absolute washout is the stuff of glib tradition, but you’re still more likely to grab some rays in July than you are December. Why not flip the script, and replace your winter malaise with unseasonal, nailed-on sunshine?
“For anyone who suffers from SAD or the winter blues, it might be worth going away in the winter,” says Laura Little, MA in Psychology and Learning and Development Manager at CABA, a charity supporting chartered accountants’ wellbeing. “Many people affected by SAD say their symptoms are at their worst during January and February, so it’s a good idea to take advantage of the cheap off-peak package holidays and get some winter sun after Christmas.”
3. Fewer Maltesers, More Massages
Chocolate’s nice, isn’t it? Especially when it’s dark and cold out. But you know what’s also quite wonderful? A relaxing, indulgent rub-down. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, however massage can deliver many of chocolate’s benefits – just without the crap, calorific downside – and then some.
“Research has shown that massage can increase serotonin levels by 28% and reduce the stress hormone cortisol by 31%,” says psychologist Dr. Meg Arroll, author of The Shrinkology Solution, “which has a much longer effect compared to the short three-minute boost from chocolate.”
4. Eat Yourself Happy
Carbohydrates are alluring and delicious at the best of times, yet this yearning kicks into overdrive for SAD sufferers come winter. Regrettably, for what they deliver in comfort, carbs can come up short when it comes to boosting your mood.
“While carbohydrates can increase the production of serotonin initially, sugary foods and refined carbohydrates can become addictive and be followed by a subsequent crash in blood sugar, negatively affecting mood,” says Braye.
“Ensuring you are getting sufficient protein is likely to be more beneficial. Amino acids are the building blocks of feel-good neurotransmitters in the brain, meaning that foods high in the amino acid tryptophan, such as turkey, beef, bananas, beans, cottage cheese, nuts and seeds are especially important, as tryptophan is a pre-cursor to serotonin.”
Carbs aren’t off the menu entirely – Braye recommends opting for “complex carbohydrates such as oats, wholegrain rice and quinoa,” as well as broadly adhering to a low-GI Mediterranean diet, full of fruit, veg and oily fish.
5. Train Away The Pain
The weather outside may well be frightful, but if you persevere with the same exercise regimen that saw you storm the summer – rather than languish on the sofa for a Netflix binge and tub of Ben & Jerry’s – you’re more likely to feel delightful.
“Building regular exercise into your routine can pay dividends when it comes to mood,” confirms Braye. “Studies have shown that aerobic exercise in particular, such as brisk walking, jogging, swimming or cycling can be particularly beneficial, especially if done outdoors.”
That said, Braye warns against any late-night gym sessions, as SAD sufferers risk a delay in the body’s production of melatonin, “which can interfere with circadian rhythms further” and make it harder to fall asleep.
Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But between the hard partying of December and well-intentioned gym-going of January, it’s your sleep pattern that often gets sacrificed during the winter.
Mark Pinches, head of coaching at Westfield Health, advocates “a combination of quantity and quality sleep” as an effective way for SAD sufferers to recharge their batteries. “Most of us will need somewhere between six to nine hours of sleep to feel good during the day,” he adds.
Not possible? Alright then, party animal, make sure you schedule some afternoon nap time instead, as this could be crucial in keeping the blues at bay. “Learning how to power nap is a great way of combating lethargy,” says physiologist and sleep therapist Dr. Nerina Ramlakhan. “Naps should be between 10 and 20 minutes and be taken when you start to feel sleepy or find yourself losing concentration. Many people have a natural dip in energy levels around 3pm – making it the ideal time.”
7. If All Else Fails, Sup It Up…
A route one way to wage war on SAD is to supplement with vitamin D. “Low mood and SAD has been linked to low vitamin D levels during the winter months,” says Braye. “Fat soluble vitamin D is synthesised in the skin, from cholesterol, after exposure to UV rays … and it is now well known that many of us in the UK are deficient.
“Vitamin D supplementation during the winter months has been shown to improve mood and is often recommended as adequate vitamin D is difficult to obtain from food alone.”
So that’s it, then – neck a tab of vitamin D, take a nap, jog in the sunshine to the nearest airport and enjoy a rejuvenating massage while awaiting your flight. Sorted.