I'm sitting here this morning with a proper dark, wet and blustery day happening outside. I'm glad to be indoors today, but aware that for many of us the first dark days of autumn can be accompanied by changes in mood. Most of us are energised by warm, sunny weather and probably notice that we feel less active during the darker months of the year; but for some of us it's a more serious issue which arrives in the form of Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD.
SAD is a form of depression which occurs in relation to a change in season - mostly during the winter months. Symptoms are similar to other forms of depression with low mood, a lack of energy, sleep problems and changes in appetite. Often there is a desire to eat more carbohydrates and comfort foods and sleep more. Some people are more sensitive to the reduction in daylight during September and October and have an earlier onset of symptoms. If you think about it, a lot of this makes sense, as winter is a time of less natural daylight and long before we altered our internal clocks with year round artificial light, would have been a time for conserving our energy and sleeping more. Many animals hibernate and reduce their activity in winter, but the modern human is forced to ignore natural cycles and carry on with the same productivity all year round. Perhaps that's not such a good thing?
We know that the pineal gland which is situated in the middle of of our brain, is responsible for the secretion of the hormones serotonin and melatonin which help regulate our mood and sleep/wake pattern but research is still inconclusive about how exactly melatonin production affects those with mood disorders. We do know that there appears to be a genetic link with SAD and also that SAD sufferers may be more affected by melatonin fluctuations than those suffering with other mood disorders such as generalised depression or anxiety.
So what helps?
The treatment that makes the biggest difference is light. Getting outdoors and exposing ourselves to as much daylight as possible can help alleviate some of the symptoms. Obviously for those working indoors all day that's not so easy, and many people find that the best option is to buy a high intensity LED light especially designed for treatment. Natural daylight bulbs and other normal household light bulbs are not strong enough to make a difference, but you can find some good advice and professionally recommended products here. Using an appropriate light for around 30 minutes each morning can make a really noticeable difference to mood and energy levels, and it's best to create a new habit by making it part of our morning routine.
There is evidence that vitamin D plays a role in the maintenance of adequate serotonin levels which support stable mood. Considering that there is a high rate of vitamin D deficiency in the Northern hemisphere, it makes sense to take a supplement during the winter months, when there is reduced sunlight. Other supplements that can be helpful are St John's Wort and Rhodiola Rosea. However, St John's Wort can interact with and reduce the efficiency of some medications so it's important that you check with your doctor before starting. Rhodiola is an adaptogenic herb which works best to stabilise mood throughout the day and reduce energy slumps and sleepiness. Everybody reacts differently to supplements and medicines so it's important to do your own research and get medical advice if you are unsure. It's not a good idea to combine herbal supplements with other prescribed antidepressant medications.
Your own doctor is the person to talk to if you feel that you are not able to manage symptoms yourself or if you are feeling increasingly depressed or having suicidal thoughts. He or she can discuss with you the option of antidepressant medication and also some CBT or counselling if available.
Going with the flow
We can't do anything about the changing seasons - unless we can fly off to warmer places during the winter, but we can choose to go with the flow of what we can't change rather than fighting against it. I make an effort to focus on the things I can enjoy about the season, such as favourite jumpers and boots, hot baths, scented candles and getting my slow cooker on the go with comforting soups and curries. When the weather is grim it can feel good to have an excuse to be more hibernatory and snuggle up with a mug of hot chocolate and a good book. Autumn and winter can offer an opportunity to come back inwards and be more self nurturing.