December 6th, 2020.
Article by Hannah Fellerman
I hope you're all doing well.
Welcome to this month’s article.
Now that the winter is upon us, today’s topic follows on nicely from last month’s article (please check it out if you haven’t already). Today we will be discussing Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) which affects some people living in countries who experience the autumn and winter seasons.
I hope this article helps you to better understand SAD and how you can help yourself and others with the condition.
If you would like to contribute to our blog, please email us with the subject “guest writer” to firstname.lastname@example.org with some detail about yourself and your writing experience (all experience levels welcome).
Take care and enjoy the article!
Disclaimer: this article should not be taken as professional medical advice. Please contact a certified health practitioner for your tailored needs.
How to overcome Seasonal Affective Disorder
Seasonal affective disorder, commonly referred to as “the winter blues” aka S.A.D aka “let me stay in bed” (just kidding) isn’t just sadness in winter, as the acronym correlates to.
SAD is more than just feeling low, and roughly one in three adults in the UK suffer from this condition.
This article will describe what exactly SAD is, and ways you can help manage the symptoms if you are someone who experiences it.
I will also be touching upon my own perspective on this condition based on my findings, personal experience and speaking to others I know who have the condition.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
The Mayo Clinic describes SAD as “a type of depression that's related to changes in seasons” which starts in the autumn months and lasts until the end of winter. Some people also experience it in spring and summer, although this is not very common.
Since autumn and winter-associated SAD is the most common type which is experienced, we will be looking at this in more detail.
The National Institute of Mental Health lists the following physical symptoms associated with SAD in the colder months:
- Oversleeping (hypersomnia)
- Overeating, particularly with a craving for carbohydrates
- Weight gain
- Social withdrawal (feeling like “hibernating”)
The NIMH also tells us that so far, there isn’t a full understanding of why SAD occurs, but research shows that it may be related to the regulation and production of serotonin which may dip, and melatonin which could be over-produced in the autumn and winter. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, and melatonin is a hormone responsible for maintaining sleep-wake cycles.
How can we deal with SAD?
Aside from low mood or depression, the physical symptoms linked to SAD indicate that those who experience it are in a lower-functioning state, likened to animals who need to hibernate or migrate for the winter. Whilst many of us do not have the opportunity to fully hibernate or to migrate to a warmer climate (especially during our current pandemic), we do have ways we can alleviate or lighten the symptoms.
Embracing the physical symptoms associated with SAD could also allow us to recuperate or conserve energy which could be a good thing for the upcoming spring and summer months, where we will most likely be spending more time outdoors and being more physically active.
I asked a few of my friends from various ethnic backgrounds to determine what SAD is like for each of them and how they deal with it.
One friend with SAD when living in the UK, is from a south-east-Asian heritage and normally lives in the tropical climate of Guam. She told me:
“I feel like [in] spring I’d have all these sleep hours logged and it will be primetime. It makes sense why people move continents just to regulate their mood / symptoms / mental health. That’s why Californians are probably nicer because they don’t get the winter grumpiness like New Yorkers?”
She also added: “But I think alhamdullilah (thank God) these testing corona times and winter alhamdullilah require more naps and we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves especially if we’re not obligated to be anywhere at a certain time, it’s a blessing to our health (sleep, specifically) first and alhamdullilah the lock down is allowing us to do that. It’s the ‘wake up and grind’ mentality that can be quite toxic because it lets us base our self worth on our productivity and we are made to feel guilty for resting. It’s the balance thing that can be difficult.”
Another friend from a south-Asian heritage who was born in and lives in the UK, described the following symptoms: “exhausted, difficult to get up in the morning, deflated and low”. She told me; “A lamp helps me. I used to plan holidays in winter to go somewhere sunny – which also helped.” She added “I’ve been doing some sleep hygiene exercises. It’s helping with the fatigue” and advising “blocking time for naps when you can.” The lamp she referred to is the ‘Bodyclock Starter 30’ which she purchased on lumie.com four years ago. “Two friends bought a lamp after I experienced an improvement from my lamp” she stated.
She also told me about a pair of glasses her friend discovered which provides light therapy to SAD suffers (check it out here).
Another friend from a Mediterranean heritage who was born in and lives in the UK, said: “what helps me is morning / afternoon walks, making sure I’m taking supplements which include vitamins C and D. Reading also helps and mainly keeping active.”
Lastly, a friend from a west-African heritage, born in and living in the UK, describes that “most dark skin people get it because the sun is what really helps us thrive. Our skin turns grey in the winter but glows in the summer. When our skin turns grey toned it’s on. That’s a visual way of seeing it.” She stated that she “learnt that from @chakabars” (a social entrepreneur who raises awareness of health and social issues relating to Africa).
“We hypothesize that people with darker skin pigmentation may experience greater risks for lower vitamin D levels that, especially following their migration to regions of higher latitude, could contribute to the emergence of SAD and other psychiatric and physical health problems.” - Study by Alan E. Stewart et al, sciencedirect.com.
Interestingly, darker eye colour has also been associated with SAD:
“Our study used a sample of 175 students from two universities (one in south Wales, the other in Cyprus). We found that people with light or blue eyes scored significantly lower on the seasonal pattern assessment questionnaire than those with dark or brown eyes. These results agree with previous research which found that brown or dark-eyed people were significantly more depressed than those with blue eyes.” - Lance Workman, Psychologist at University of South Wales.
The friends I had asked all had medium to dark eye colours. Perhaps a coincidence but it still supports this theory.
The circadian clock or rhythm and G proteins have also been linked to SAD (read more here).
As someone of European heritage (with hazel eyes), who has lived in the UK my whole life, I’ve always felt somewhat slower during the colder months. It’s harder to motivate myself to be productive. I feel more tired and don’t want to do much. However, I am a huge believer in not forcing myself to do something outside of my physical limits. At the same time pinpointing the balance between resting and procrastinating is essential to my physical and mental well-being. When I feel like I can apply myself to a task, I will. When I feel that I need rest, I will do that too.
A few months ago I changed my curtains to black-out ones. The light coming in the window in the early morning disturbed my sleep. I wake up before sunrise for my morning prayer and having thin curtains which let the light in was making it really hard for me to fall asleep again and get enough hours of sleep for my body’s needs. However, I make sure I open my curtains when I do start my day and keep them open until it gets dark. It's important that I’m exposed to as much natural light as possible in the day-time, especially now that the sun sets at 3:50pm. I also take naps when I am feeling particularly lethargic. I haven’t tried an SAD lamp or light therapy glasses but it’s something I’m thinking I may try in the future. For now, this seems to be working for me.
To help me fall asleep more easily or have a more restful sleep, I sometimes listen to sounds designed to help with that, at night time and nap times. They include delta waves, theta waves, isochronic tones and binaural beats, accompanied with sounds of nature such as the ocean and other relaxing tones. Isochronic tones also help me to alleviate migraines when they are excruciatingly painful. You can find these sounds on YouTube, Spotify and mobile apps. Delta waves in particular have been associated with aiding quality of sleep because they enhance the delta waves produced naturally in the brain.
An example of a delta wave sleep video below:
I also discovered sleep story podcasts many years ago. A channel I really like on YouTube makes brilliant gibberish stories to put you to sleep:
As someone who suffers from chronic fatigue all year, I have other methods to combat low energy. I take the following high quality supplements: omega 3 oils, vitamin C, vitamin D3, magnesium malate and a multi-vitamin and minerals supplement. I also sometimes take a natural migraine supplement known as feverfew which comes in handy when I have to crank up the heat in the winter! All of these supplements combined have elevated my quality of health and I notice a difference when I forget to take them.
I also try to keep my water intake higher in winter, even though it means more trips to the bathroom. I’m also trying to decrease my intake of tea and coffee and opt for herbal teas as much as possible (because, caffeine.). Incorporating fruits and vegetables in my diet is also something I’ve been consciously doing more of this year in an effort to improve my overall health and manage my weight. I do notice I’m more lethargic after eating very salty or fried foods so I keep these to a minimum too.
In the winter, I gravitate to more starchy carbohydrates such as potatoes, rice and pasta and crave more chocolate, biscuits and pastries. Making the switch from white to brown rice 90% of the time has helped to regulate my energy levels and leaves me less bloated. I also opt for seeded or brown bread instead of white. Choosing healthier options will provide an overall benefit to your physical and mental health. Flax seeds, chia seeds and a super green powder, are all a regular part of my diet now too.
Central heating can also make me tired, so regulating my home’s temperature can be a challenge in the winter. But keeping warm takes more priority for me so it’s mostly always on, hence why hydrating myself is important.
I also make use of blue-light filters built into my laptop and phone screens as soon as the sun sets, so that I’m not exposed to blue-light at night, which can increase my energy when I need to wind-down.
To summarise, here is what I do to combat my physical symptoms:
- Using black-out curtains
- Listening to certain sounds to regulate sleep and manage pain symptoms
- Taking naps
- Listening to sleep story podcasts
- Taking high quality vitamin and mineral supplements
- Increasing my water intake
- Decreasing caffeine
- Eating more fruits and vegetables
- Choosing healthier carb options
- Adding flax seeds, chia seeds and green powder to my diet
- Keeping warm
- Using blue-light filters on my devices
Specific things which help my mood are:
- Creative work such as art, design and DIY
- Watching educational and entertaining videos
- Watching movies
- Playing creative or mind exercising games on my phone
- Going for walks outdoors ranging from 15 minutes to 1 hour
- Walking around my home
- Cleaning and tidying (a tidy space is a tidy mind)
SAD can be combatted in many ways. If you are able to book a holiday, a warmer climate will do wonders for most of your symptoms. However, embracing the change in your energy and mood by consciously resting more can also help you feel better in the colder, darker months (i.e. getting rid of the guilt for resting). It’s important that you also look after your physical health through diet and exercise as well as taking supplements. Lastly, making time for your hobbies and leisure activities is important for mental well-being.
Everyone is different and what works for my friends and I may not work for you. Do some research and experiment to find what works best for you.
I hope some of the ways in which myself and my friends deal with SAD has given you some possible solutions and as mentioned in the disclaimer at the start, please don’t treat this article as professional medical advice.
What are your thoughts and experiences with SAD? Leave a comment in the discussion boxes below.
Hannah Fellerman is the founder of Ezelle, who started the brand to combine both design and social change as these are two of her biggest passions; you can read more on our about page.
All photograph based images used in this article are Royalty Free.
References and further reading:
Seasonal affective disorder: 1 in 3 people suffer from SAD, (https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/seasonal-affective-disorder-1-3-people-suffer-sad-9814164.html), Antonia Malloy, 24th October, 2014, independant.co.uk.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), (https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20364651), Mayo Clinic, mayoclinic.org.
Seasonal Affective Disorder, (https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/seasonal-affective-disorder/index.shtml), National Institute of Mental Health, nimh.nih.gov.
Chaka Bars, (http://instagram.com/chakabars), Chaka Zulu, instagram.com.
Possible contributions of skin pigmentation and vitamin D in a polyfactorial model of seasonal affective disorder,
(https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0306987714003351?via%3Dihub), Alan E.Stewart Kathryn A.Roecklein SusanTanner Michael G.Kimlin, 18th September, 2014, ScienceDirect, sciencedirect.com.
Seasonal affective disorder: your eye colour might be why you have the 'winter blues', (https://theconversation.com/seasonal-affective-disorder-your-eye-colour-might-be-why-you-have-the-winter-blues-106035), Lance Workman, January 2nd, 2019, The Conversation, theconversation.com.
Genetics of seasonal affective disorder, (https://www.news-medical.net/health/Genetics-of-Seasonal-Affective-Disorder.aspx), Chloe Bennett, February 5th, 2019, News Medical Life Sciences, news-medical.net.
G protien, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G_protein), Wikipedia, wikipedia.org.
G protien-coupled receptor, (https://www.britannica.com/science/G-protein-coupled-receptor), Kara Rogers, Janurary 3rd, 2013, Britannica, britannica.com.
Circadian rhythm, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circadian_rhythm), Wikipedia, wikipedia.org.
Do Isochronic Tones Have Real Health Benefits?, (https://www.healthline.com/health/isochronic-tones?c=946892233240), Jill Seladi-Schulman, February 28th, 2020, healthline, healthline.com.
What are binaural beats and how do they work?, (https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320019), Lori Smith, September 30th, 2019, MedicalNewsToday, medicalnewstoday.com.
Delta Wave, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delta_wave#Sleep_deprivation), Wikipedia, wikipedia.org.
The Impact of Delta Waves on Deep Sleep, (https://www.verywellmind.com/what-are-delta-waves-2795104), Kendra Cherry, November 25th, 2019, verywellmind, verywellmind.com.
Food and mood: can what I eat help combat symptoms of SAD?, (https://www.nutritionist-resource.org.uk/blog/2019/10/24/food-and-mood-can-what-i-eat-help-combat-symptoms-of-sad ), Bonnie Gifford, October 24th, 2019, Nutritionist Resource, nutritionist-resource.org.uk.
Winter Blues? Try These 10 Food Tips to Help Ease Symptoms, (https://www.healthline.com/health/food-tips-help-ease-winter-blues), Brian Krans, September 17th, 2018, healthline, healthline.com.
6 Ways to Clean House When You're Depressed, (https://www.everydayhealth.com/depression/clean-house-when-youre-depressed.aspx), Dennis Thompson Jr, July 13th, 2009, Everyday Health, everydayhealth.com.
Seasonal Affective Disorder Have You Down? Todying up May Help, (https://www.wellandgood.com/seasonal-affective-disorder-tips-cleaning/), Tamim Alnuweiri, February 7th, 2018, Well + Good, wellandgood.com.
Light Therapy, (https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/light-therapy/about/pac-20384604), Mayo Clinic, mayoclinic.org.