Are you S.A.D this Winter?

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Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as winter depression or winter blues, is a mood disorder.  Symptoms typically build up gradually in late Autumn and Winter, only to improve in Spring and Summer.  While it is more prevalent in countries with short winter days and long periods of darkness, many Australians suffer from this condition especially women.

Sufferers of S.A.D. complain of lower mood, fatigue, poor motivation, loss of interest in work and other activities, social withdrawal, an increased need for sleep, especially in the mornings, and an increase in appetite, especially for carbohydrates, often with consequent weight gain.

S.A.D. is thought to occur as a result of a disruption in our sleep/wake cycle.  The pineal gland, located behind the eyes, responds to darkness by secreting melatonin which regulates our daily body clock.  Lack of adequate light results in excessive melatonin during the day,  causing sleepiness and depression.

The disorder is believed to be a remnant of the hibernation response of our remote ancestors.  Indeed even cavemen during the ice-age would have spent much of their winters sleeping through the long cold nights in front of a warm fire in a cave, eating meat and root crops, and mending nets and spears.  While we’ve come a long way from going to bed when the sun goes down and waking when it rises, this is how our bodies are designed to function.

So to treat or prevent S.A.D.

  1. Try to follow our ancestors’ simple sleep patterns by going to bed earlier in winter.  We do need more sleep in winter.
     
  2. For an hour or two before bedtime, avoid electronic items such as TV, mobile phones and computers.  These emit blue light and disrupt the normal sleep-wake cycle.  Electromagnetic radiation from electric blankets and clock radios can also disrupt good sleep. 
     
  3. Expose your eyes to morning light before 8 am.   Dawn and morning light are integral in regulating our biorhythms by shutting down the melatonin production by the pineal gland.
     
  4. Don’t forget to exercise.  Long walks especially during daylight are recommended.
     
  5. Eat like our ancestors – plenty of good quality protein and fat supplemented with root vegetables. Fruit, our ancestors main source of carbohydrates, was not usually available it winter. That was a summer treat!  It was generally too cold for anything green and leafy too.
     
  6. Keep warm.  Studies suggest that cold temperatures also play a part in the development of S.A.D.
     
  7. Compile a list of ‘winter attributes’, for example, snow-skiing, warm winter gloves and scarves, glowing winter fires (the red light emitted is sleep-inducing), delicious soups and stews (take advantage of that slow-cooker), being able to slather on all those lovely moisturising oils and creams without feeling sticky, and, for the creative amongst us, knitting, quilting and embroidery (just as our ancestors mended their nets!).  

I like to plant some early flowering spring bulbs and flowers, especially in my driveway so I can watch them bloom and grow every morning as I leave for work.  To me they demonstrate the promise of spring and warmer days ahead. 

- Dr Julie Bradford

Bradford Clinic