As the summer draws to a close, another season passes. The days are set to become shorter, and everything seems darker. For some, this environment can trigger Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a condition characterised by depressive tendencies during the autumn and winter months. The acronym is rather ironic(!)
The science behind SAD
A common observation in those with SAD is the difficulty in regulating the hormone serotonin, otherwise known as the happy chemical of the body. As we chase the sun into the autumn months, we see a fall in serotonin levels, this is a repercussion of an increase of the transporter protein SERT.
SERT carries serotonin back into the nerve cells where it is not active; causing lower activity of serotonin. The sunlight helps to maintain low levels of SERT, but when the days become shorter, SERT levels increase, resulting in a decline in serotonin and therefore mood.
Serotonin levels are also influenced by a decline in Vitamin D within the body. The main source of Vitamin D is the sun, and so the less sun the body receives, the more deficient in Vitamin D you become, which can further alter your mood state.
SAD may also be caused by an overproduction of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland that responds to darkness by causing sleepiness. Thus, as the days become shorter and darker, melatonin production increases and lethargy and sleepiness become more pronounced.
Both of these hormones work simultaneously to alter the circadian rhythm, which regulates the 24hr sleep-wake cycle, which is why it is commonly referred to as the 'body-clock'. As serotonin decreases and melatonin increases, the rhythm becomes disrupted, and the clock struggles to 'tell the time'.
The difference between SAD and 'Generic' Depression
The symptoms of SAD are similar to those of depression:
- low mood
- low energy
- lack of concentration
- social/relationship problems
- loss of libido
Although, the difference with SAD is the yearning to hibernate and overeat. Individuals may find it hard to wake up on a winter's morning and often feel sleepy during the day. This tends to be coupled with an increased desire for carbohydrate rich foods and comfort food. Weight gain becomes almost inevitable. It has been reported that those suffering with SAD sleep 2.5 hours longer during winter months, compared to summer months.
Unlike clinical depression, SAD lasts around 4-5 months and cluster symptoms fade as days become longer and sunlight exposure increases.
The severity of these symptoms differs between individuals; often depending on gender, genetic vulnerability and geographic location.
Did you know...
- SAD affects 2-8% of the total population in Europe
- Three to four times more women than men suffer from SAD
What can be done to combat SAD?
Common treatments for SAD include light therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy and anti-depressants. But the most simplest form of treatment is soaking up the sun where possible. Taking a short walk, sitting out in the garden or even opening the blinds/curtains can increase the amount of natural light that we are exposed to.
It is well documented that regular exercise can lift your mood and fight symptoms of depression, this may also be the case for symptoms of SAD. Exercising for as little as 10-15 minutes can elicit a positive effect on mood. There are a combination of reasons as to why this is.
- Exercise induces the release of endorphins - chemicals that induce a sense of pleasure and well-being once released.
- An increase of the hormones serotonin
- Your body is more likely to relax in the evenings if you are exercising regularly. As you burn energy your body's temperature rises, it then falls within a few hours causing drowsiness, and therefore eliciting a better nights sleep (if timed correctly).
A nutritious diet can also reduce the likelihood of SAD. Although a common symptom of SAD is to turn to sugary high carbohydrate foods, it is important to avoid these foods. Instead turn to whole-grains, protein and healthy fats, these are well known to boost serotonin levels. Our blog post 'Foods to Boost your Mood' lists 5 foods that hold the potential to combat symptoms of SAD.
Our Good Green Vitality is perfect for the winter months. A formula of 75+ ingredients; containing a combination of nutrients and adaptogenic herbs to support cognitive function and help cope with stress. In particular:
- Ashwaganda holds mood and cognitive benefits, and acts as a stress-protector.
- Magnesium has a relaxing effect, and reduces anxiety
- Zinc is said to reduce the likelihood of depression
- Lecithin has been shown to reduce cortisol levels, thus stress levels
- Bioflavonoids are linked to improved cognition and anti-depressant activity
- Although research is preliminary, Gotu Kola has demonstrated anti-depressant properties
- Cacao has mood boosting properties and antioxidant properties
- Preliminary reviews suggest Resveratrol could improve parameters of memory and mood
- Rhodiola has been suggested as a stress-protector.
This article is for reference purposes only. If you feel you are suffering with symptoms similar to those mentioned here, please consult your healthcare practitioner for medical advice.