New research from the University of Copenhagen reveals that the winter blues aren’t all in our heads – lack of sunlight can change how our brains work. Candice Pool reports and brings you three things proven to help
Researchers at the University of Copenhagen have confirmed the reason why sufferers of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) have a harder time motivating themselves once autumn strikes and the darkness begins to descend. Turns out, our brains really do miss the sunlight.
So what happens? According to the research, those who have SAD will lose serotonin – a neurotransmitter in the brain that regulates our mood – when the sunlight lessens this winter. The less of this ‘happy chemical’ you have, the unhappier you feel.
Perhaps as a result of this direct link between sunlight and SAD, the researchers also asserted that your chances of being hit with SAD depend on where you live. The study revealed that in areas such as Glasgow, all of Scandinavia and Moscow, as many as one in six are diagnosed with the SAD.
According to the NHS, approximately 2 million people in the UK are currently suffering with SAD, with the number lingering around the 12 million mark across northern Europe. Plus, unfortunately for us ladies – as is the case with many mood disorders – it’s more common in women.
The study gathered 11 patients clinically diagnosed with SAD, alongside 23 healthy volunteers in order to compare how serotonin levels varied between the two groups as the nights drew in. As the natural daylight began to deplete and days were clipped short, there was a key component in the brains of the SAD individuals that marked them out from the healthy volunteers. Researchers pinned down the culprit as being the serotonin transporter (SERT) protein. The study revealed this pesky protein that deals with the regulation of active serotonin malfunctioned in those diagnosed with SAD when sunlight lessened.
Lead researcher, Brenda McMahon explained, ‘We believe that we have found the dial the brain turns when it has to adjust serotonin to the changing seasons. Sunlight keeps [SERT levels] naturally low, but when the nights grow longer during the autumn, the SERT levels increase, resulting in diminishing active serotonin levels.’ In other words, the lack of sunlight actually reduces the amount of serotonin in SAD individuals, hence the drop in mood.
What are the symptoms of SAD?
According to the NHS common symptoms include; lethargy, the need to sleep excessively (hypersomnia) but still remaining sluggish, feeling irritable, indecisiveness, feelings of despair, difficulty concentrating, tearfulness, low self-esteem, intensified hunger (hyperphagia), dwindling libido, and mood swings that can result in a backlash of excessive energy in the spring and summer.
What can be done?
There are number of proven ways to manage the effects of SAD when it rears its ugly head. Here are three of them.
1) Sit in front of a light box for 30-60 minutes a day
You’ll be hard pressed to mention SAD without coming across the topic of light therapy. Many studies reveal that the extra light can boost your mood. In one, researchers from the Department of Neuroscience at Uppsala University, Sweden, conducted a comprehensive study in 2011 measuring the effects of bright light therapy on symptoms of fatigue, sleepiness, and depression in 49 individuals. The researchers measured the severity of the symptoms using questionnaires and then sent the participants on a course of bright light therapy in a ‘light room’ for 10 days. And it worked. Even after just 10 days health-related quality of life improved in all. What’s more, the participants still felt better an entire month the treatment, without any follow-up in between.
The added light works as a substitute for the sun and encourages your brain to produce more serotonin which makes you feel happier. What’s more, light therapy can also increase the production of melatonin – the hormone that makes you sleepy, thus helping you get a better night’s sleep.
When you’re looking for a light box, choose one that emits 10,000 luxe of light or more (that’s the way light is measured) and then sit in front of it for 30-60 minutes ensuring the light is hitting your face and it’s not further than 23-35 centimetres away from you. Don’t worry, certified light therapy boxes have all the UV light removed from them so you don’t have to worry about frying your skin with sunlight. The most reliable brand we have found is Lumie – which are registered medical devices and undergo stringent safety testing in according with European regulations. We like their Lumie Arabica SAD Light Box – Therapy Lamp(£103.77 from Amazon)
2. Walk or jog for 30 minutes a day
A remarkable study by the department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at Duke University revealed that exercise is as good at boosting your happiness as antidepressants.
The researchers gathered 202 adults (153 of those being women) diagnosed with major depression and divided them into four groups. Each group was then randomly assigned to one of of four modes of treatment; home-based exercise, supervised exercise in a group setting, antidepressant medication (Sertraline), and a placebo pill. So in order to assess the psychological benefits, researchers placed good old fashioned aerobic exercise head to head with antidepressants in a battle to beat sadness. Did exercise put up a good fight? The answer is yes.
After four months of treatment each group were given questionnaires to check out their recovery rates. Prescribed medication reduced the patients’ depressive symptoms by 47 per cent, but the benefits of exercise were not far behind with a 45 per cent reduction. Solitary exercise also did well in the recovery stakes by achieving a 40 per cent reduction in depression. The social aspect of the group exercise is arguably what made it more effective than the home-based workout, said the researchers, but there’s no denying how important simply getting those muscles pumping is when you’re feeling blue.
3.) Cut back on junk, fill up on vegetables
Obvious, we know but it really does help. A 2010 study from The University of Melbourne showed that those who fuel themselves with sugary, fat-laden food and fried take-aways feel more depressed. Researchers selected 1,046 women aged 20-93, and gathered information about their dietary mishaps and psychological disturbances through a series of questionnaires. They found those who ate a diet of deep-fried, processed and sugary foods and beer were more often complaining about psychological disturbances and feeling depressed. Those filling up on a healthier diet of fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains and meat and fish fared much better off mentally.
For more information and advice about Seasonal Affective Disorder visit sada.org.uk
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