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Fight back against Seasonal Affective Disorder

In a normal year, about 3 people in every 100 in the UK have significant winter depressions – known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

However, this year, when so many of us can’t see family and friends and – even worse – can’t hug or touch those we love outside our households, it’s not surprising that winter depression is thought to be more prevalent.

Whilst you can’t ‘cure’ SAD or winter depression, there are plenty of things you can do to reduce the impact of this condition on your life, even in these times of social restrictions.

By knowing what to look out for, and understanding what makes you feel particularly depressed or anxious during the winter months, you can fight back against this debilitating condition.

How do you know if you have Seasonal Affective Disorder?

According to the NHS website, symptoms of SAD can include:

  • a persistent low mood
  • loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities
    irritability
  • feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness
  • feeling lethargic (lacking in energy) and sleepy during the day
  • sleeping for longer than normal and finding it hard to get up in the morning
  • craving carbohydrates and gaining weight

Even the most cheery people tend to become a little more downbeat or subdued during the winter months. Many of us turn to comfort eating or drinking a bit more than usual to deal with the feelings of wanting to ‘hibernate’ and stay inside during cold, darker days.

What causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Scientifically speaking, SAD is related to the levels of serotonin – sometimes known as the ‘feel-good hormone’ – in the brain. Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter that regulates our mood and how well we sleep.

In people with SAD, the reduction in natural daylight is believed to cause a drop in serotonin.

However, much of how well you cope with this could be to do with your overall outlook and mental wellbeing.

A study by academics at the University of Groningen in The Netherlands published in 2020 found that long winter nights won’t make us feel appreciably more depressed if we already have a sunny disposition.

The Dutch study of over 5,000 people found that the change of season only triggered depression in people who already tend to suffer from anxiety and experience negative emotions in response to stressors.

What can you do about SAD?

If you feel that your mood is significantly worse in the winter and you’re struggling to function in your day to day life, your GP may prescribe treatment such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). This can be used to help with a variety of forms of depression and anxiety and is often combined with talking therapies such as counselling.

MIND, the UK’s leading mental health charity, says that many people find it helpful to use other therapies instead of, or as well as, traditional mental health support.

These could include art and creative therapies, complementary therapies such as yoga, massage or meditation, or nature therapy, which could include working outside as part of a therapeutic programme.

These treatments can be helpful if you feel you need support to change negative thoughts and habits. They could be useful if you are dealing with other emotional issues that mean that your SAD is more challenging than usual.

Light therapy for Seasonal Affective Disorder

If you don’t feel your ‘winter blues’ are severe enough to merit a trip to the GP or a specialist, you may find a daylight lamp helpful. These specially-designed lamps are designed to trick your brain into thinking that you are out in the sunshine, boosting the production of serotonin in the brain and helping to naturally improve your mood.

If you decide to use light therapy to combat your SAD, do make sure you choose a light that is specifically made for this purpose – a normal lamp won’t be as effective. Check the instructions carefully to determine how far away you should sit, and for how long, and look for a brightness of at least 2,500 lux.

Lightboxes can be pretty expensive, so it may be worth trying out a free or low-cost lightbox app on your phone before you invest to get an idea of whether this is right for you.

Herbal remedies for mild depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder

If you want to avoid anti-depressant drugs, you could try a traditional herbal remedy containing St John’s Wort.

HRI Good Mood is a licensed traditional herbal medicinal product used to relieve the symptoms of slightly low mood and mild anxiety. Taking two tablets a day provides the strongest daily dose on the UK market, but if you want to initially try a gentler dosage, many people find that just one a day can be helpful, depending on the nature of your SAD.

MIND says that research suggests that, in some cases, “St John’s wort might be just as effective as some antidepressant drugs to treat mild or moderate depression.”

They also say that, for many people, it can cause fewer or less intense side-effects than prescription antidepressants. However, you should always read the patient information leaflet, particularly if you use hormonal contraceptives or are on anticoagulants or epilepsy medicine as it may not be suitable. If in doubt, do check with your GP or pharmacist.

St John’s Wort is not a cure for severe depression or anxiety and you should always consult your GP if you are concerned about your mood.

Always choose licensed products for quality and safety

THR logo - safety in herbal medicinesIf you choose to use herbal St John’s Wort medicine to help you fight back against Seasonal Affective Disorder, do make sure you choose one that has been tested for quality and safety and approved by the regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency.

You can see at a glance if herbal medicines are approved as they carry the Traditional Herbal Registration (THR) logo.

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