Monday, 30 November -0001

It’s a sad, sad situation

Got a case of the winter blues? You could be suffering from seasonal affective disorder. But there is some light at the end of the tunnel, finds Carolyn Hart

Written by Carolyn Hart
Winter is icummen in/ Lhude sing Goddamm/ Raineth drop and staineth slop/ And how the wind doth ramm! Sing: Goddam./ Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us/ An ague hath my ham/ Freezeth river, turneth liver/ Damn you; sing: Goddamm

That's winter – as experienced by the great poet, Ezra Pound, but recognisable to anyone living in the northern hemisphere. Short, grey days; dark and stormy nights. No wonder many people find the winter months a depressing, bleak experience. But if you're a sufferer of this seasonal moodiness, the winter blues, as it's often known, you could be the victim of something else entirely – depression caused by a lack of daylight, or seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Back in the old days of winter, prior to the 1970s in fact, when this condition was first documented, you wouldn't have had SAD – you would just have been sad. Fed up with drizzle, fog, icy blasts, dark mornings and darker evenings, you'd have been told to snap out of it, pull yourself together and get on with it.

In the more enlightened days of the 21st century, depression caused by the seasonal gloom has become a syndrome. Like all the best diseases, it's got a catchy title, an acronym and a collection of medical websites ready to tell you what to do about it. Even doctors, often sceptical of this kind of illness, are prepared to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you are suffering from something that is not solely depression (or laziness).

SAD is – the thinking goes – caused by a lack of light. The amount of sunlight you have affects the number of nerve messages sent from the eyes to certain parts of the brain, thus changing the levels of brain chemicals, such as serotonin and melatonin. Changes in the balance of these chemicals can alter your mood and trigger depression. Symptoms such as persistent sadness, disturbed sleep and poor concentration, are worst in December, January and February, and then disappear between March and September.

At least one in 50 people in the UK is thought to have SAD. It's an affliction that can develop at any age but it affects four times as many women as men. and what you can do about it One of the best ways to alleviate symptoms is to ensure exposure to as much daylight as possible. Sunlight is the best source of light.

Light therapy can help. This treatment consists of sitting in front of a special bright light for a session each day, or using a dawn simulator. Light is measured in lux. Ordinary light bulbs give out 200-500 lux; to treat SAD you need a light source of at least 2,500 lux. Various companies make and sell light boxes; some operate a 'try before you buy' policy.

Other treatments include: antidepressants, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), regular exercise, counselling and a healthy diet. If you are prone to winter depressions, there is some evidence to suggest that a course of CBT or antidepressants taken before the winter arrives can prevent some cases of SAD.

For further help and information, contact The Seasonal Affective Disorder Association, PO Box 989, Steyning, West Sussex BN44 3HG:

Symptoms of SAD

  • Sadness, anxiety
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Loss of interest in things you used to enjoy
  • Fatigue and decreased energy
  • Lack of concentration
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Changes in weight
  • Thoughts of death

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