For some, the change in season brings with it more than just a drop in temperatures and greyer skies. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is something that affects many of us during the late autumn and winter months.
The common condition is characterised by a persistent low mood, lack of energy, sadness and sleepiness. While some may experience it during cold and dark days, others may have SAD symptoms during the summer and feel better during the winter. The key is that it's a type of depression that comes and goes in a 'seasonal pattern', according to the NHS.
It's thought to be particularly triggered by a lack of daylight, with the eye failing to send effective 'wake up' messages to the brain, due to low light levels. Essentially, a disrupted circadian rhythm (your body's internal clock), can lead to symptoms of SAD.
Currently, it's estimated the condition affects around two million people in the UK. This includes people of any age, including children.
"Many of us may experience a lack of energy, low mood and change in sleeping patterns during the winter – especially after the clocks change [which occurred at the end of last month]. If these changes interfere with your everyday life you may have seasonal affective disorder," explains Fatmata Kamara, mental health nurse adviser at Bupa UK.
Looking to winter, with SAD sometimes referred to as 'winter depression', symptoms can be more apparent and severe. "Reduced sunlight has been linked to a drop in serotonin levels (a hormone that stabilises mood and wellbeing) and an increase in melatonin (a hormone which regulates sleep cycles)," adds Kamara. "Changes to these hormones can also trigger feelings of depression."
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) symptoms
"Symptoms of SAD are similar to other forms of depression," adds Kamara. "You may feel your overall wellbeing and mood is low and you lose interest in your usual activities. You may also find yourself lacking energy, struggling to sleep or a loss of appetite.
"Some people who suffer from SAD also experience physical symptoms such as headaches, heart palpitations and aches and pains."
The full list of symptoms, according to the NHS, include:
persistent low mood
loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities
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 carbs and gaining weight
decreased sex drive
How to help Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Enjoy natural sunlight during the day
It's wise to soak up all that we do have from the great outdoors during the colder months.
"If the lack of daylight hours are affecting your mood, try to make the most of them and get outside when you can. Even on a cloudy day, getting outside will help your body to get the light it’s craving," says Kamara.
That's because SAD is not all about vitamin D (though important), which we only get from sunshine, but daylight, regardless of whether it's sunny or not.
"Whether it’s a morning or lunchtime walk, wrap up warm and get outside in the fresh air to help boost your mood," she urges.
Use SAD lamps to brighten your environment
If you work from home, your first port of call is to try to bring the light inside.
"If you work indoors, whether from home or in the office, make an effort to let in as much sunlight into your working environment as you can. Open any curtains or blinds and sit by a window," says Kamara.
But, if that fails and it's simply too grey outside, you can also invest in a SAD lamp, which replicates daylight. Sitting by it for around 30 minutes each morning can make a significant difference to mood, and help you start the day.
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"These lights which mimic the sun, are thought to boost levels of serotonin and melatonin," explains Kamara.
"Evidence around light-therapy is still not 100% conclusive, but it does look as though it can deliver positive short-term effects. This means it could be a helpful way to banish the winter blues until the days start getting longer."
SAD lamps, or light boxes, can come in many different forms, including desk lamps and well-mounted fixtures. You might also find sunrise alarm clocks, which gradually light up your bedroom to help you wake up, useful too.
The good news is that most sunlamps contain UV filters, meaning they’re not harmful in the same way that sunlight can be. The intensity of light is measured in 'lux' – so if a product has a high lux, that means it'll be pretty bright.
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While most people can use them safely, it might not be suitable if you have an eye condition or eye damage that makes your eyes particularly sensitive to light, or are taking medication that increases your sensitivity – speak to your GP if you're not sure.
Make sure you also read up on what different light boxes are for, whether it's medically approved for treating SAD, the intensity you should be using, and the amount of time for. Of course, those who just generally need a little extra help with mornings and dark days can benefit too.
You can help to regulate mood by choosing a healthy diet. "A balanced diet helps to look after your physical and your mental health," says Kamara. "Your body is likely to be craving sugary foods, so try to balance your diet with things like pasta, oats, cereals, nuts and seeds which help to release energy slowly.
"It’s important to make sure you’re getting all the proper nutrients and vitamins and foods rich in vitamin D and omega-3, such as oily fish, can help to improve mood."
Taking fish oil, iron tablets and a multivitamin may help, too.
Don't skip breakfast
Expanding on the above, a healthy diet includes always eating breakfast. Kyle Crowley, nutrition expert at Protein Works explains, "SAD symptoms such as lack of motivation can be extremely detrimental during the workday. Our research has shown skipping breakfast can negatively affect productivity, causing an afternoon crash. The longer a person goes without eating, the quicker their blood sugar levels will spike at their next meal, leading to a bigger eventual crash."
David Brudö, CEO and co-founder of mental wellbeing and self-development platform, Remente, says, "Even if it might seem impossible to get outdoors to exercise when it’s cold and rainy, a regular exercise routine can make you feel significantly better, as exercising produces endorphins, leaving us feeling happier, and improving things such as quality of sleep."
But, with it harder to get motivated as winter edges ever closer, we can adapt this to suit us.
"If a run outside is too much, then why not book in some classes at the gym, or even exercise from the comfort of home?," he suggests.
The joy of Youtube and fitness apps means there's always an exercise class or routine on tap. Try yoga for mental strength and energy, or a HIIT routine for a fast burst of endorphins.
Sort your sleep
Going to bed and getting up at the same time each day can help you stay balanced, says Brudö.
"Practising 'sleep hygiene' will leave you feeling happier and make you more productive on a day-to-day basis, so try to go to bed and wake up at the same time that you normally would throughout the year," he explains.
"If you have a hard time unwinding, try a short meditation session before bed."
Other sleep hygiene tips include saying goodbye to technology an hour before hitting the hay, avoiding stimulants like coffee late in the day, and only using your bed for sleep.
Make better caffeine choices
So when should the caffeine cut off point be?
"For some people caffeine can have a negative effect on sleep quality, which is essential for combating SAD symptoms. Despite its benefits it can be disruptive to sleep if consumed too late in the day," Crowley emphasises. "So, if you're sensitive to caffeine, avoid drinking regular coffee after 3-4pm as it can harm your sleep."
If none of the above suggestions help, however, it's important that you see your GP and get a proper diagnosis and a treatment plan.
To find out more about treatments for SAD, see the NHS website.
For support and to speak to someone about how you are feeling, call the Samaritans free on 116 123 or visit its website.
Read more: What is a 'SAD' or 'sunlight' lamp? (5-min read)
Read more: The most common mental health conditions – and where to get help (Yahoo Life UK, 5-min read)
Read more: How much sleep you need at different ages, from childhood to the later years (7-min read)
Watch: Seasonal Depression in kids: Does your child have seasonal affective disorder?