SAD: what is it? How can we combat it?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a condition most common in 18-30 year olds. Though it is more often associated with winter and the lack of exposure to sunlight (which results in decreased levels of vitamin D), this disorder can also be experienced in summer, where sufferers may experience insomnia, restlessness and anxiety due to higher temperatures and longer daylight hours. Symptoms of the winter form of SAD include, but are not exclusive to, sleep problems, mood changes, lethargy and mild to more extreme forms of depression. The NHS estimate that about one in 15 people will experience forms of SAD between the months of September and April. As it is seasonally variable, a diagnosis is often made after two or more consecutive winters of symptoms. That being said, the very short days, colder weather and generally dull British weather at this time of year inevitably affect all of us, with many people suffering from sub-syndromal SAD or ‘winter blues’. 


Sunlight in winter is brightest in the morning, so in order to expose yourself to the strongest, most beneficial light aim to get outside early. However, the cold, often damp, British winter mornings are definitely not the most appealing. If you miss out on your morning exposure to sun, use candles and lamps to brighten up your bedroom or workspace. A good idea would be to sit by a window when studying or working to make best use of the minimal daylight hours. Libraries, including the Arts and Social Sciences, Wills, Medical and Queens libraries at the University of Bristol offer a free SAD lamp borrowing service – just ask at an information desk!


Exercising is an obvious but essential natural remedy for SAD. Regular exercise - even just a few minutes a day - raises heart rate and increases endorphin (a protein hormone) levels in the body, which helps to lift moods. Since overeating and cravings are often a symptom of SAD, it is important to keep your exercise levels up to keep up with higher calorie consumption. 


SAD is known to cause increased appetite, in particular causing cravings for carbohydrates such as starch and sugars. In the advent period it is of course difficult to avoid such foods, but just being aware of what you are eating is important. Lack of vitamin D, which we get primarily from the sun, is associated with SAD. Try to make sure vitamin D remains in your diet when lacking it from the sun. Foods that contain high levels include oily fish, cheeses and egg yolks. For veggies and vegans, look for foods which are fortified with vitamin D, such as juices and cereals. 


SAD is a common condition which many people suffer from. Women are four times more likely to experience SAD than men, so make sure to check in with your girls at this time of year.