Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is an acute state of this, with most sufferers identifying with depression throughout winter, although some experience reverse SAD in which the onset of depression occurs in summer.
There are many potential causes of SAD and it is likely that a combination of these factors bring about the mood-dampening feelings most of us experience to some degree. Like in most health issues, genetics play a major role in determining susceptibility to SAD. Some bodies require more light than others to carry out essential biological processes and therefore are more vulnerable to SAD. Moreover, depending on the coping mechanisms and level of resilience developed by each individual, the extent to which they will be affected by the weather will vary. Individuals who practise mindfulness and cultivate their wellbeing through physical activity, meditation and other fulfilling activities tend to be better equipped to manage and even prevent SAD. Some individuals have difficulty maintaining mental stability and emotional balance due to their genetic make up, whilst others may be more vulnerable to SAD and depression due to a traumatic life event, an illness, a change in diet, medication or the use of alcohol and drugs.
The most widely accepted and significant theory concerning SAD is that reduced sunlight in autumn and winter leads to reduced serotonin and increased melatonin production in the brain. Serotonin is a hormone involved in mood regulation which when compromised can result in symptoms of depression, while melatonin is a hormone that helps you sleep and can account for increased fatigue in the darker months of the year. The effects of sunlight are also believed to go beyond hormonal regulation and trigger physiological changes due to their impact on behavioural factors. For example, shorter days can result in a disrupted body clock which in turn can contribute to the onset of SAD.
The key to managing SAD, as with many other mental health issues, heavily depends on the development of self-help strategies to build up mental strength and emotional resilience. Adopting small positive behavioural habits and committing time and effort to wellbeing can lead to vast improvements in mental health. For example, spending as much time outdoors in natural light as possible, designing an ambient living space and visiting natural landscapes can help you feel more content and calm. Having a support network allows you to open up about feelings and experiences which can help with managing and even overcoming SAD. Your support network may simply involve your friends and family, but it could also comprise a support group or a therapist.
Adequate physical activity and nutrition, being essential for physical and mental health, will also allow you to cope with season-driven mood fluctuations. Movement in any form to any degree of intensity, particularly when performed outside in a natural space, has been shown to be extremely effective in reducing symptoms of SAD. A healthy balanced diet low in processed food or added sugars will boost your energy levels and help you maintain a stable mood. Lean proteins help counteract fatigue and promote satiety while essential omega-3 fatty acids are believed to help alleviate depression. Healthy and sustainable sources of protein include organic, locally-sourced meat and fish; pulses, beans, nuts and seeds and soy products. Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in oily fish, flax seeds and spinach. Other beneficial foods include berries, for inhibiting the release of the stress hormone cortisol; dark chocolate, for containing polyphenols which stimulate the feeling of happiness and help mitigate feelings of depression and anxiety; bananas, for containing complex carbohydrates, tryptophan and magnesium that fuel the brain, calm the brain and help alleviate anxiety respectively. If you struggle to spend time outdoors in natural light you should consider taking a vitamin D supplement, as your body relies on sunlight to produce vitamin D. If your diet is largely plant-based, then you should consider taking a vitamin B12 supplement or consuming B12-fortified products, as B12 is predominantly found in animal products. These vitamins are not only necessary for your body to function, they will help to offset the effects of SAD.
In some cases of SAD, medical attention may be necessary. If you find that you struggle to manage the symptoms yourself, you should seek help from your GP, who can offer a range of therapy options including support services, psychotherapy, herbal remedies, bright light therapy and antidepressant medication.
There are a huge variety of ways to combat SAD and different treatments will have varying degrees of effectiveness in different people. Some individuals have even been shown to respond well to ionised air treatment in which the harmful effects of positive ions, which we encounter more frequently in winter by spending more time indoors, are neutralised by the introduction of negative ions into the air. Whilst positive ions result from industrial processes and pollutants and appear in dust and viral particles, negative ions typically arise from natural processes such as sunlight, thunderstorms, lightning and waterfalls. Whatever the cause, accepting that our mood can be affected by the weather, recognising when this has an impact on our quality of life, developing and practising coping mechanisms and seeking help when necessary will enable us to regain control of our emotional wellbeing and maintain our mental health.
+ Words: Yasmin Razzaque
Yasmin Razzaque is a Biochemistry graduate with a keen interest in health and nutrition. She uses her scientific knowledge and ability to critically analyse research to write articles about healthy and sustainable eating and wellbeing.