Does your mood drop in winter? Do you lie in bed, unable to drag yourself out on those chilly mornings to go to work?
As the evenings draw in do you feel less tempted to socialise and more inclined to snooze in front of the television, avoiding all possible contact with even your nearest and dearest?
Take heart. You are not alone. Doctors and researchers now know that hundreds of thousands of people suffer each year from an ailment called “seasonal affective disorder” – SAD for short.
The name is appropriate, because sadness is one of the main symptoms of this illness, manifesting itself in varying degrees of depression and fatigue over the winter months.
For some people SAD is a mild case of the winter blues which makes them feel sluggish and irritable during the cold months. But in more extreme cases the illness makes it impossible to carry on a normal life: careers are ruined and relationships destroyed.
Some sufferers report low energy levels, depression, anxiety, irritability, mood swings, sleep problems and a loss of sex drive. Many women report a more severe form of premenstrual syndrome during the winter months which may be associated with disturbed circadian rhythms.
SAD is not a new illness. For centuries doctors have been aware of the change in mood and energy level which comes over some of their patients during winter. They used to attribute this to the drop in temperature, or the effects of being cooped up indoors for long periods.
In the United States, “cabin fever” is still a common name for the depression and fatigue experienced in the hard and bitter winters of the northern states.
In Norway, where in some areas the sun is never seen for part of the winter, the season is referred to as Mórketiden. This literally means murky times, a reference not just to the weather, but also to the mood experienced by the inhabitants.
Only in the past 30 years have doctors looked more closely at the symptoms and causes of this winter syndrome.
As a result of their observations of sufferers in many countries they have concluded that the low energy levels, changes in appetite, depression, inertia and introversion experienced by many are due not to low temperatures and bad weather, but to lack of sunlight.
SAD has been identified in most areas of the world where the winter means short daylight hours and long, dark evenings.
Even in Australia and countries in similar latitudes, shorter winter days mean many office workers see almost no natural sunlight during the day. Some people go to work and come home in the dark for months.
This regime of prolonged artificial twilight means the brain’s inbuilt clock, adapted to respond to light levels up to 400 times stronger than indoor lighting, can go askew.
Fluorescent lighting in an office may generate light at an intensity of about 200 lux compared with the 10,000 lux of a bright winter’s morning. Summer noon light levels may range between 80,000 and 100,000 lux.
Recently, researchers have discovered that SAD sufferers experience a disruption in the synchronisation of their body clocks.
Careful monitoring of these patients suggests their biological clocks might be delayed or running slow. When light levels entering the eye begin to decline at dusk, or under the dim lighting conditions of the modern office, the pineal gland begins to synthesise a hormone called melatonin.
When the level of melatonin rises, signals to the nervous system turn down the normal activities associated with waking.
For a normal individual emerging from sleep, an hour’s morning sunlight completes the destruction of melatonin, and the person feels ready to work. Not so for SAD-affected individuals.
Instead of being functional at the right time of the day, sufferers feel almost non-functional, something that could cause problems at work for a great number of people.
SAD is distinguished from other illnesses because its symptoms are present only on a seasonal basis. According to researchers, the most common symptoms include an increased desire to sleep, extreme lethargy, depression and an increased appetite, which often leads to weight gain.
These basic symptoms can affect people in several ways. The need to sleep more can mean falling asleep in the early evening or waking later in the morning. For some it can mean a constant drowsiness. Or it may be a combination of all these symptoms, resulting in a continuous desire to sleep.
SAD people may do less in winter, but despite decreased activity they still feel tired.
This overall lack of energy leads to other problems, an inability to concentrate at work, a lack of vitality and little motivation to carry on a normal life.
Aid for those who crave food during winter, the end result is often weight gain. Some sufferers report they have little or no self-control during winter and eat constantly.
This ailment can be treated using light therapy, counselling and in some cases drugs. It is advisable to consult your doctor, however, before any self-treatment.
Researchers claim to have effectively treated a number of sufferers with light therapy, using specially constructed light boxes (the book contains detailed instructions on how to construct a light box for use at home). Light therapy involves sitting in front of a concentrated light source for some time each day during winter months.
Counselling by a qualified person is also recommended for sufferers. The treatment also includes stress management and some practical advice on reducing stress levels, such as relaxation techniques and exercise.
Author bio: Natalia has a great enthusiasm for learning, writing, and sharing health and lifestyle knowledge. She has worked as an editor for major publishers, such as Discovery/Times, NHK, and The Washington Post.