Feeling fatigued and lacking motivation in the winter months could be signs that you're suffering with Seasonal Affective Disorder. Here are some simple everyday biohacks which could help.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
Seasonal Affective Disorder is appropriately shortened to "SAD" and also known as "winter depression" or "the winter blues."
It's a condition which affects people in the autumn and winter months, when daylight hours are reduced and the dark evenings kick in.
Around 3 in 100 people suffer with SAD, and it usually starts between the ages of 20 and 30. It is more common in women but often more severe in men.
Common Signs & Symptoms of SAD
Most of us feel a little low and lack energy once summer is over, but SAD is more severe and shares symptoms similar to depression.
Some of the symptoms of SAD include:
- Tiredness & fatigue
- Low mood
- Increased appetite
- Poor concentration
- Struggling to wake up in the morning
- Low sex drive
- Feeling antisocial
- Increased anxiety
The easiest way to know if these symptoms could be caused by SAD is if they begin in autumn or winter and then improve again in spring.
Fortunately, there are many things you can do to proactively manage SAD and help to reduce the severity of your symptoms.
What Causes SAD?
Chemical Changes & Circadian Rhythms
On a physiological level the root cause of these symptoms is the effect of seasonal changes on our circadian rhythms.
These are processes in our internal body clock which respond to light and dark, so it makes sense that they might change with the seasons.
Shorter days and longer nights alter our sleep-wake cycles. They cause a drop in serotonin, a neurotransmitter which is increased by bright light. They also cause an increase in melatonin, another neurotransmitter which is synthesised after dark.
When serotonin drops and melatonin increases, it has a real impact on our mood and energy levels - which explains the root cause of most SAD symptoms.
Genetic & Environmental Factors
You may be wondering why does everyone not get SAD then? It is actually thought that everyone experiences the symptoms of SAD, but with a huge variance in severity on a spectrum from unnoticeable to severe and debilitating.
The prevalence and severity of SAD can be influenced by a number of factors:
- Some people are genetically predisposed, i.e. more likely to have SAD as it runs in the family
- People who move from warmer to colder climates or live in Northern climates are at a greater risk
- Seasonal lifestyle changes such as spending less time outdoors, being less active and poorer nutrition during the winter months can also make it worse
The Modern Mismatch that's Depriving Us of Sunlight
A lack of sunlight is the root cause of SAD and in the modern world our exposure to sunlight is lower than ever.
Sunlight never used to be something which we only admired through windows or enjoyed at weekends or when on holiday.
It was something our ancestors utilised every day to navigate the landscape, guide their sleep routine and grow their food. So for the vast majority of human evolution, we have spent a lot more time outdoors than we do now.
These days, there are far fewer reasons and opportunities to get outdoors in the sun. With a greater percentage of jobs moving indoors and public health campaigns which warn of the dangers of sunlight for skin cancer, sunlight exposure has decreased even over the last century or so.
There's no denying that a modern lack of sunlight exposure is contributing to increased prevalence of SAD. It is also thought that the link between low sunlight exposure and Vitamin D deficiency increases the risk of all depression year-round.
Check out our article below which explains the benefits of embracing sunshine, rather than avoiding it.
Natural & Alternative Treatments for SAD
There may not be much you can do about your genetics, how much time you can spend outdoors or the weather! But the good news is that there are loads of great ways you can proactively manage SAD and reduce the severity of its symptoms.
Of course, if you notice that it is becoming debilitating and you are not making progress, then it is a good idea to discuss it with your doctor or healthcare professional.
However, for most people Seasonal Affective Disorder is manageable and there are plenty of healthy hacks you can use to keep it ay bay.
Fatigue, lack of energy and difficulty waking up in the morning are all hallmark symptoms of SAD. If you suffer with SAD then these will be more difficult to overcome, but getting enough quality sleep can really help.
Try to go to bed and get up at roughly the same time every day, even on weekends. This will help to support your body clock in maintaining a consistent sleep pattern.
Other things you can do to nurture a better night's sleep include investing in good quality bedding and pillows, limiting screen time in the evening and enjoying a hot bubble bath and book before bed.
Getting outside more during the winter months can really help to reconnect us with nature, boost energy levels and lessen the impact of SAD.
Even if it is cold and frosty, winter sunshine can be as good as summer sunshine when it comes to lifting your mood.
Try to enjoy more time outdoors in the winter months to gain the benefits of daylight when it isn't so readily available. Even if that means taking a brisk walk on your lunch break, this will really help to break the cycle of going out in the dark and coming home in the dark.
Invest in a sunrise alarm clock
This is a great idea if you find struggling to wake up the the mornings to be a prominent symptom of your SAD.
Instead of waking up to a startling alarm tone that makes you want to slam the snooze button, you can enjoy a calming 'sunrise' which mimics natural sunlight.
The slow and gradual brightening effect of a sunrise alarm clock is about as close to a natural sunlight awakening as you'll get in the modern world - unless camping in the wilderness is your jam!
Once you have tried a sunrise alarm clock, there will be no going back to your most hated alarm tone.
As many of the symptoms of SAD originate from and are exacerbated by a lack of sunlight, it make sense that light exposure therapy could really help to improve the condition.
One of the most professionally recommended treatments for SAD is light therapy - that is sitting by a light box which mimics natural daylight.
Research has found that 30-60 minutes of light therapy each day can be effective at increasing serotonin and reducing melatonin - reversing the chemical imbalance which drives SAD.
You can get all kinds of light therapy boxes from desk lamps to wall mounted, so whether you're at home or in the office, this is a simple and effective way to manage your condition.
Get more Vitamin D from your diet
Aside from our mood and energy levels, something else which is directly impacted on by a lack of sunlight is Vitamin D.
Uniquely, Vitamin D is synthesised in the body when our skin is exposed to sunlight. It converts the sun's UVB rays into the active for of the vitamin, D3. In doing so, sunlight is one of the best sources of Vitamin D.
You can also get Vitamin D from certain foods. So, it's a good idea to try and eat foods high in Vit D - not just during winter but year-round.
Good sources of Vitamin D include oily fish, red meat, liver and eggs. Together with the other lifestyle changes discussed, eating more of these foods will help to boost your Vitamin D as well as your mood and energy levels.
Living with SAD in the long-term
Seasonal Affective Disorder can be unpleasant, frustrating and can even affect other aspects of your health and wellbeing.
Knowing how best to manage this condition can reduce the impact is has on your life and help to make the winter a much easier time for you.
The important thing to remember is that unlike any other condition. SAD will change with the seasons and the light is always there at the end of the tunnel!
All information provided on our website and within our articles is simply information, opinion, anecdotal thoughts and experiences to provide you with the tools to thrive.
It is not intended to treat or diagnose symptoms and is definitely not intended to be misconstrued for medical advice. We always advise you seek the advice of a trained professional when implementing any changes to your lifestyle and dietary habits.
We do however recommend seeking the services of a trained professional who questions the conventional wisdom to enable you to become the best version of yourself.