SAD & the brain

May 24, 2021

The symptoms


As Winter sets in, days get shorter and we start to wake up to the familiar feeling of the ‘Winter blues’, you may have wondered about why the change in mood. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern. You may have experienced some of the symptoms and recognise them in yourself. These can include;

  • a loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities
  • irritability
  • 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 carbohydrates

For some these symptoms are quite pronounced and for others they are milder. Nonetheless, these colder and darker months can be very draining.

What causes SAD?


Although the exact causes of SAD isn’t completely understood, we do know that it is often linked to reduced exposure to sunlight.

The lack of sunlight is thought to impact the hypothalamus, resulting in

  1. Increased production of melatonin – melatonin is a hormone that makes you feel sleepy; in people with SAD, the body may produce it in higher than normal levels
  2. Decreased production of serotonin – serotonin is a hormone that affects your mood, appetite and sleep; a lack of sunlight may lead to lower serotonin levels, which is linked to feelings of depression
  3. Disruption of body's internal clock (circadian rhythm) – your body uses sunlight to time various important functions, such as when you wake up, so lower light levels during the winter may disrupt your body clock and lead to symptoms of SAD

Reducing the impact of SAD

Here are Mind Ninja’s suggestions for reducing the impact of the winter blues;

  • Schedule mindfulness moments as well as formal practice for 10 mins a day
  • Practise gratitude every day - noting what you are grateful for specifically and why
  • Up natural sunlight - ensuring you get an early morning walk is shown to improve circadian rhythm and enhance sleep
  • Exercise is cognitive cake! Dopamine released improves focus, learning and motivation, serotonin enhances mood and increased blood to the dentate gyrus enhances memory
  • Light therapy – where a special lamp called a light box is used to simulate exposure to sunlight
  • CBT as well as talking therapies
  • Journalling is a great way of making sense of your thoughts

Helping hand

If you would like to get more support, consider going to the GP. You can also self refer to the NHS Practitioner Programme for CBT sessions or speak to Confidental, a 24 hour helpline.

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