Vitamin D is important for bone and muscle health, as well as the immune system and cell growth. The human body makes vitamin D when exposed to sunlight and deficiency can occur during the winter. This can sometimes contribute to changes in mood and energy levels, known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of depression. As winter sets in for the Northern Hemisphere we take a closer look at SAD and what healthcare professionals have to say.
How does the human mind and body change during the winter?
Dr. Naomi Newman-Beinart: “Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of low mood that comes and goes according to the season. Some symptoms of SAD are similar to depression, for example, lack of interest or enjoyment in daily life, less interest in sex and low energy. SAD is characterised by its ability to affect people during the colder and darker months, and by the end of Spring people with SAD tend to feel better.
“However, this is not always the case and some people find that they actually have SAD in the Spring and Summer months every year. It’s normal to have changes in mood throughout the year, but if your symptoms are bad enough to affect your daily life in a certain season, then you might have SAD. It is estimated that three out of every 100 people in the UK struggle with SAD. According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists (UK), women with children are the most likely to be affected, and women in general are three times more likely than men to have SAD.
“Reduced sunlight in the winter months causes a drop in serotonin, the ‘happy hormone’, which can lead to low mood. The American Psychiatric Association explains SAD as a change in people’s biological internal clock, or circadian rhythm, which makes them feel out of sorts with their usual daily schedule. Both explanations make sense and together they help to explain the anomaly that is SAD.”
Dr Ravi Gill: “During winter months, due to the decrease in sunlight exposure the human mind and body can undergo various changes. One significant aspect of this is the impact on our sleep, our sleep may become more disrupted and this can contribute to changes in our mood. The decrease in light exposure particularly in the mornings can disrupt our body’s circadian rhythm and can lead to an overproduction of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that regulates our sleep-wake-cycles which is sensitive to light.
“Reduced sunlight exposure may also contribute to lower levels of vitamin D, affecting overall well-being. Additionally, some people may experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), characterised by symptoms of depression during the winter.”
What are some of the negative impacts of SAD?
Dr Ravi Gill: “Seasonal Affective Disorder can have various negative impacts on an individual’s well-being. Common effects include symptoms associated with depression; SAD often leads to persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness and a lack of interest or pleasure in activities. Winter depression can affect sleep, causing oversleeping or insomnia, further contributing to feelings of lethargy. Cognitive functions such as memory may be impaired, which makes it challenging to concentrate and perform daily tasks. This can contribute to performance issues at work. We tend to experience appetite changes, ‘comfort eating’, craving for carbohydrates which can contribute to weight gain. It’s important to recognise these symptoms and seek support from healthcare professionals.”
What can employers do to help their employees through this period?
Dr Ravi Gill: “Employers can support their employees during the winter months by implementing the following measures:
- Flexible Work Arrangements: Consider flexible schedules or remote work options to accommodate employees dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder or other winter-related challenges.
- Wellness Programmes: Offer wellness programmes that promote physical and mental health, such as fitness classes, mindfulness sessions, or workshops on stress management.
- Natural Light Exposure: Maximise natural light in the workplace to counteract the effects of reduced sunlight during the winter. Encourage employees to take short breaks outdoors when possible throughout the working day.
- Open Communication: Foster a workplace culture where employees feel comfortable discussing their well-being. Encourage open communication about stressors and challenges.
- Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs): Provide access to EAPs, which can offer counselling services and support for various personal and professional issues.
- Training for Managers: Train managers to recognise signs of stress or mental health challenges in their teams and provide resources for support.
- Encourage Time Off: Promote the use of annual leave; a break can help employees recharge and manage stress.
- Educational Resources: Share information about Seasonal Affective Disorder and mental health resources to raise awareness and reduce stigma.
“By prioritising employee well-being and creating a supportive work environment, employers can contribute to a healthier and more productive workforce during the winter months.”
What can families do to support each other?
Dr Ravi Gill: “Families can support each other in various ways, especially during challenging times like the winter months. Having open and honest communication within the family. Encouraging family members to share their feelings, concerns, and needs. Spending quality time together doing activities that everyone enjoys; this can strengthen bonds and create positive experiences. Winter months can bring various stressors, so patience and empathy are crucial during this time. Remind family members to prioritise self-care. Encourage activities that promote mental and physical well-being, such as exercise, hobbies, and relaxation. By fostering a supportive and communicative family environment, members can navigate challenges together and create a sense of unity and resilience.”
Dr. Naomi Newman-Beinart: “There are several ways to treat SAD. If you think you may have SAD, it’s important to speak to your doctor and find out what treatment is right for you. You are likely to be told to try and get as much natural daylight as possible and you may be asked to try talking therapies, such as cognitive behaviour therapy.
“I highly recommend that everyone takes a high-quality multivitamin and mineral complex including vitamin D throughout Winter. Serotonin levels in the brain can be affected by vitamin D deficiency. Serotonin is known as the happy hormone because it is important in keeping your moods up and you feeling your best. A low mood, especially in winter, could be a sign of vitamin D deficiency. Add a few daily sprays of vitamin D spray to your routine. Each spray delivers 3000IU (75μg) of vitamin D3 for an optimal dosage and delivers vitamin D through the soft tissue of the mouth for optimal absorption.”
As an individual, what self-care do you advise?
Dr Ravi Gill: “Self-care at its core involves engaging in activities which prioritise and boost an individual’s physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. Self-care can take various forms and what works for one person may differ from what works for another. Staying physically active, getting exposure to natural light and maintaining a healthy lifestyle can help make the winter months more manageable.
“Other self-care practices can include mindfulness, meditation and deep breathing exercises. Spending time with supportive friends and family members contributes to emotional well-being. Knowing when to ask for help and reaching out to friends, family, or professionals when needed.
“Individual self-care is essential for overall health and resilience. It involves recognising and prioritising one’s needs, making intentional choices, and incorporating activities that contribute positively to one’s life.”
Dr. Naomi Newman-Beinart: “Another natural solution to support SAD symptoms could come from CBD oil. This wonder-oil has recently made it to the forefront of popular wellness and has been found to help with anxiety, stress and poor sleep, some of which you may be feeling as part of SAD. A few drops of CBD oil taken at least an hour before bed may improve insomnia and promote a restful night’s sleep.”
What items / healthcare treatments can be used to help someone through SAD?
Dr Ravi Gill: “Treatment options for Seasonal Affective Disorder include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), antidepressant medication and light therapy. Light therapy can help to improve mood; light therapy involves sitting by a special lamp called a light box, usually for around 30 minutes to an hour each morning. The light box simulates the sunlight that’s missing during the darker winter months.
“It’s thought the light may improve SAD by encouraging your brain to reduce the production of melatonin (a hormone that makes you sleepy) and increase the production of serotonin (a hormone that affects your mood). Light boxes come in a variety of designs, including desk lamps and wall-mounted fixtures.”
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