The dark winter months can feel long and lonely. For some people who suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) however, they can be especially difficult to cope with. With the reintroduction of lockdown this new year, getting outdoors may seem less appealing than ever. Yet, spending time outdoors and increasing our exposure to sunlight is precisely what we must strive to do to help us cope and stay healthy during the winter months.
What Is Sad?
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression which has a seasonal pattern. It is most severe during the winter months, particularly in the period between December to February and for this reason is sometimes referred to as the “winter depression”. Symptoms can begin in the autumn, as daylight hours begin to decrease, and tend to improve during the spring months as the days get longer again. However, some people do suffer from SAD during other times of the year as well.
As with other forms of depression, SAD is most typically characterised by a persistent low mood and a lack of interest in life or daily activities. Those suffering from SAD may also be more irritable, feel anxious and stressed. Additionally, sufferers may also feel more lethargic and find that they are sleeping more than they would do normally. Some people also find themselves craving carbohydrates and eating more, which can lead to weight gain.
What Causes Sad?
It’s not fully understood what causes SAD. However, it’s believed to be linked to reduced exposure to sunlight during the shorter days of winter. Sunlight is important for our bodies and can have an impact on some of the hormones and chemicals in the brain. There is some suggestion that SAD is caused when the hypothalamus (which is a part of the brain responsible for controlling mood, appetite and sleep) stops working correctly.
As a result of this, the body may begin producing higher levels of the hormone melatonin, which can lead to people feeling sleepier than normal. Similarly, lack of sunlight can also affect serotonin production. Serotonin is the hormone linked to mood, sleep and appetite. Lower levels of serotonin can lead to increased feelings of depression. Finally, reduced exposure to sunlight can negatively impact upon the body’s circadian rhythm or body clock.