S.A.D. – winter depression

S.A.D. - winter depression

Winter depression: You probably know someone with S.A.D. or Seasonal Defective Disorder, more commonly known as winter depression. We look at a few ways of easing up those winter blues.

What is winter depression, or S.A.D.?

by M Knight

Winter depression is more commonly experienced by women, and stats claim that about 1 in 50 women suffers from S.A.D. – it’s common enough to get its own nickname, the winter blues. It’s certainly not a sign of mental imbalance – you can be perfectly mentally healthy and still get depressed in the winter months.

S.A.D. symptoms include:

  • Lethargy, lacking in energy, unable to carry out a normal routine
  • Sleep problems, finding it hard to stay awake during the day, but having disturbed nights
  • Loss of libido, not interested in physical contact, loving cuddles but not wanting your loved ones to touch you in other ways
  • Anxiety, inability to cope
  • Social problems, irritability, not wanting to see people
  • Depression, feelings of gloom and despondency for no apparent reason
  • Craving for carbohydrates and sweet foods, leading to weight gain

The list can go on in acute cases of the winter blues but that’s probably enough to be getting on with.

Why are women more likely to get S.A.D.?

The answer might be… evolution. S.A.D. is argued to be an evolved adaptation in humans that is a variant or remnant of a hibernation response in some remote ancestor. Presumably, food was scarce during most of human prehistory, and a tendency toward low mood and inactivity during the winter months would have been helpful to reducing the need for calorie intake. The preponderance of women who get winter depression suggests that the response may also somehow regulate reproduction.

What causes winter depression?

Seasonal mood variations are believed to be related to light. Our bodies operate by circadian rhythms, which are light cues provided by the sun which regulate mood, sleep, energy, appetite and digestion. As the days draw in and the nights get colder, the decrease in natural sunlight can really affect our circadian rhythms. In the old days we could hide in a cave until winter was over like a big old bear. In modern society we’re expected to function as happily and energetically as we do in summer, but this can’t always be the case. Also, the invention of electric lighting means people can stay up and function well into the night, and these activities mean we’re losing our natural ability to regulate the body clock and keep our moods balanced.

Remedies for winter depression

S.A.D. lights

If winter depression is caused mainly by light change, the best thing to do is to dose your body every day with an S.A.D. light box which fools your body into thinking it’s getting a good strong dose of natural sunlight. If you do suffer from winter depression, a S.A.D. light can balance out your moods to reduce anxiety and tiredness, keep your sleep patterns as they should be, and help keep your energy levels up.

There are plenty of S.A.D. lights on the market, but the really cheap ones don’t have a high enough lux factor to make any real difference to your circadian rhythms why waste your money? S.A.D. lights are specially designed for the purpose of reducing winter depression that are made to minimize eye and skin damage; don’t just go buy bright lights. Expect to pay £140 and up to really get any benefit. Accredited manufacturers include Apollo Health/Philips Healthcare, Britebox, Full Spectrum Lighting and Innosol. If you get winter depression, accredited S.A.D. lightboxes last for ages and could save your winter.

Light has direct alerting and energising effects and improves our performance. Exposure to bright light sources relieves the symptoms of winter depression and has been successfully used in light therapy – hence the advent of S.A.D. lights.

Mookychick also tried the rather nice Apollo Health goLITE P1 SAD Light at around £140, but it gives two thumbs up to the Philips goLITE BLU Energy Light. This light box is small and portable, so you can either set it up on your desk at home or use it at work if you need to.

It’s very easy to use – just hit a button to get a dose of ‘sunlight’. You can use it 20 minutes a day or more if you choose. The goLITE BLU has an alarm so you can be woken up with ‘sunlight’ to get you going in the morning.

Why is the light actually blue? Research shows that a special photo receptor in our eyes is responsible for regulating our energy and sleep/wake cycles. This receptor responds to the blue light of the summer sky. We do not get as much of this light in autumn and winter, and indoor light doesn’t emit enough of this essential colour. The goLITE BLU energy light (you can find more information about it at www.philips.co.uk helps to shift circadian rhythms back to their normal pattern by delivering the wavelength, colour and intensity of light that our body responds most efficiently to.

Road-testing the goLITE BLU

Well, yes, but does it really work? I was keen to try one. I get relatively low levels of S.A.D. but these things can be hereditary and my mother gets it really strongly – I thought it might make a good Christmas present, if it actually worked. Also, I definitely get lazy and anxious in winter. And who wants that?

I found the goLITE BLU S.A.D. light really easy to use. Which is good, because I hate reading instructions. Being so small and light it was very easy to set up on my desk. I moved it somewhere so it was fairly close to me and shining in my face but so I didn’t have to look at it. I hit a button marked ‘light’ and was immediately bathed in a soothing blue light that, I have to say, immediately made me feel more relaxed and able to cope. I thought the blue light would be a bit harsh but it felt lovely – like being in a standup tanning box (though it didn’t feel warm and the goLITE BLU leaflets promise you the light is genuinely good for you AND you won’t get a tan).

As for the relaxed and coping thing – I thought that would probably just be excitement at a new toy. But a few weeks later, using it every day, I could see it really was making a difference to my day. Doing a full day’s job then coming home to work in your little office can be genuinely heartbreaking sometimes, especially when it’s cold and dark outside and you just want to go and party/hibernate/escape to the Phillipines. But in the fortnight of testing, where I used the S.A.D. light about twenty minutes every day, the minute that blue light went on, I went from feeling ‘bleh’ to feeling genuinely happy and able to cope with the little things, which can be harder in winter. It was brilliant. My mother will definitely be getting one of these for Christmas. Unless she reads this article, in which case – sorry mum! You can’t have one now, because I’ve given the game away!

Beating winter blues with exercise

Light isn’t the only thing you need in winter. Sometimes you have to do the legwork to get your endorphins going. A bit of exercise every day can make a world of difference to your mood – listening to three of your favourite ‘really mad dancing is guaranteed’ songs on your mp3 player should do it. Going for brisk walks in the park, or getting off the bus stop or train stop before the one you need – there are plenty of ways of getting your heart pumping to lift your mood without really changing your normal routine too much.

Natural remedies for winter depression

Lastly, you can lift your mood in the dark months with what you eat. Good remedies for winter depression include porridge, valerian, 5HTP or omega 3… find out more about natural remedies for winter depression here.

S.A.D. - winter depression and SAD lightsS.A.D. - winter depression and SAD lights

Philips goLITE BLU Energy Light

Apollo Health goLITE P1 SAD Light