Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

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Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)


A Guide to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

• Do you hate the long winter evenings?

• Do you want to hibernate and overeat?

• Do you feel exhausted, anxious and depressed?

• Do you crave sunlight?

..Then maybe you are suffering from Seasonal Affective disorder, a condition which affects approximately half a million people in the UK during the winter months. ‘SAD’ is the rather apt acronym for the condition that induces feelings of low mood, depression, increased appetite, PMS like symptoms, poor concentration, lack of energy and sleepiness during the winter months. Symptoms usually begin in late autumn or early winter, and tend to disappear in late spring.

During the winter months, when there are fewer hours of natural daylight, the brain produces more melatonin, a hormone secreted by the pineal gland, which regulates glandular function and makes us feel sleepier.

Not everyone experiences the same symptoms, but other common features of SAD include cravings for carbohydrates, weight gain, irritability, and an increased feeling of worthlessness.

There are a number of practical things you can do to help yourself whilst suffering from SAD:

Eat more of the foods proven to help with winter depression:

• Tryptophan rich (Serotonin boosting) foods – e.g. fish, turkey, chicken, beef, cottage cheese, legumes, lentils, oats, avocados, bananas, whey protein and wheat germ. These help the body produce more serotonin, the ‘feel good’ hormone

• Oily fish – e.g. salmon, mackerel, sardines, trout. These are rich in omega three fatty acids which help to nourish the brain, which is made up of 60% fat.

• Flax seeds – are also rich in omega three fats and can be sprinkled over your breakfast cereal or added to fruit smoothies

• Rich soups, stews and casseroles – these are particularly warming and comforting during the cold winter months and can be made even more nutritious by adding plenty of green and root vegetables

• Oat based, sugar free cereals – these are rich in B vitamins, which nourish the nerves and are great mood boosters. Oats also provide a feeling of fullness, and a sustained energy release throughout the morning. Eat porridge or muesli for breakfast, and sweeten with chopped apple or berries.

Reduce consumption of the following foods during bouts of SAD:

• Stimulants – Reduce your intake of stimulants such as tea, coffee, chocolate, and caffeine based energy drinks

• Alcohol – this lowers levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin levels in the brain, which helps to keep us positive

• Refined carbohydrates – e.g. white flour products (breads, cakes, pastries, pasta) refined breakfast cereals, white rice, and sugar. These foods cause sudden spikes in your blood sugar levels, shortly followed by ‘crashes’ in your energy levels.

Useful dietary supplements for Seasonal Affective Disorder

• St John’s Wort – 900mg daily in divided doses. Studies have shown that people with mild to moderate SAD experienced significant improvements with anxiety, loss of libido and insomnia after eight weeks of treatment. However, please note that this herb potentially interacts with a number of prescription drugs e.g. the blood thinning drug warfarin, anticonvulsants, and the oral contraceptive pill. You should therefore check for contraindications with your GP / practitioner

• Vitamin D – 1000iU daily. Most people over the age of one would probably benefit from vitamin D supplementation, whether or not they are suffering from SAD. You will need to double this dose if you are taking St Johns wort, since vitamin D destruction in the body is enhanced by this herb.

• Fish oil – 1g daily . This is especially important if your diet doesn’t include three servings of oily fish per week. I recommend the Eskimo brand to my patients, since it is a highly quality product that has undergone a rigorous purification process to eliminate environmental toxins.

• Multivitamin / Multimineral. This is not a substitute for a healthy, varied and balanced diet, but rather as an insurance against insidious vitamin / mineral deficiencies.

Other advice for coping with SAD

• Get as much natural daylight as possible. When it’s sunny, spend as much time as you can outdoors. Early morning sunlight is ideal, as this can help calibrate a deranged circadian rhythm.

• If you are at home during the day, keep the curtains open as much as possible.

• If you work in an office, try to get a workspace that’s near a window.

• Engage in regular exercise during daylight hours, and begin your physical activity before your symptoms start. Physical activity outside in the bright morning light is a win-win.

• Try to establish a mindset that will enable you to enjoy the wintertime. Plan active events for yourself in advance of the autumn, and schedule things to look forward to.

• Why not treat yourself to a winter holiday in the sunshine?

• Invest in a SAD light box. Full spectrum light therapy, designed to replicate normal sunlight, has been shown to be effective for the treatment of diagnosed SAD in well monitored, controlled studies. This effect is probably due to restoration of proper melatonin synthesis and secretion by the pineal gland, leading to re-establishment of the natural 24 hour rhythmic release of hormones. Treatment using modern light boxes emitting 10,000 lux takes 30 – 60 minutes a day. Treatment is usually effective within three or four days and the effect continues provided it is used every day.

NB Tanning beds should not be used to treat SAD. The ultraviolet rays emitted are damaging to the eyes and skin and can lead to skin cancer.

The SAD Association (SADA) has a support network, and their website is a useful resource:


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