Date Published: 30 October 2005

Don't let SAD get you down says the Mental Health Foundation

Mental Health issues - UK

The Mental Health Foundation (UK) has issued a reminder that the clocks go back at 0.00 hours today, Sunday 30th October, signalling the start of shorter days, longer nights and a sinking feeling for many. Every year many thousands of people dread the onset of winter and might not know that what they are actually dreading is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of depression normally experienced between October and April.

SAD is thought to be caused by inadequate levels of bright light during the winter months and is particularly severe in December, January and February. It occurs throughout the northern and southern hemispheres but is extremely rare in those living within 30 degrees of the Equator, where daylight hours are long, constant and extremely bright.

2%, or 1 in 50 people in the UK are thought to be affected by this form of depression which can be seriously disabling and prevent normal functioning. A less severe form, referred to as the 'winter blues' affects 1 in 8 of us and is typically characterised by lack of energy, sleeping longer hours and cravings for sweet and carbohydrate rich foods.

SAD is four times more common in women than men and can begin at any age, but most commonly starts between 18 and 30. Symptoms to be aware of include:

  • Low energy, fatigue
  • Feeling depressed and weepy
  • Sleeping more than usual
  • 'Heaviness' in the limbs
  • Loss of enjoyment in pleasurable activities
  • Social withdrawal
  • Anxiety
  • Overeating and weight gain
  • Loss of libido
  • Weakened immune system
  • Poor motivation
  • Lack of concentration

Iain Ryrie, Programme Director of Research at the Mental Health Foundation, said:

" The dark mornings and shorter days during the winter months leave many feeling depressed and people also tend to become less active, stay indoors and eat more 'comfort food'. However, it is particularly important that we actively practice a healthy lifestyle at this time of year. Good nutrition, exercise, exposure to natural light and plenty of rest all help to protect against seasonal depression and maintain mental well-being.

_ If someone experiences the symptoms which accompany SAD each day for two weeks or more, they should see their GP for help and advice."

Light therapy is proven to be effective in up to 85% of diagnosed cases of SAD. This involves sitting in front of a special 'light box' allowing the light to reach your eyes. Evidence also points to the value of dawn simulation devices that gradually mimic the progressive presence of dawn prior to a person's waking. In addition to light therapy, research is being carried out into the positive effect of negative ions which are found in high concentration at the seashore and in lower concentration indoors in Winter. SAD may also be treated with anti-depressants.

Symptoms disappear in spring and are sometimes followed by a sudden burst of energy and activity accompanying the longer days.

The Mental Health Foundation's self-help tips include:

  • Get outdoors ? keep up your light quota
  • The use of light therapy in advance of symptoms may be helpful
  • Stay near windows in the daytime at home and work
  • Don't ask too much of yourself ? listen to what your mind and body needs ? people often need more sleep - and leave major projects until the spring
  • Look after yourself ? try to exercise and eat well - and pamper yourself when possible
  • If you drink alcohol keep to the recommended limits
  • Try to get away if you can or plan enjoyable activities
  • If you have SAD, talking therapy can help you to find ways of coping

Source: Mental Health Foundation, UK

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