Brightening your mood

2014-07-31 00:00

SEASONAL Affective Disorder (Sad) is a form of depression that occurs during the same season every year. Most commonly it begins during autumn months and continues through winter. In a few cases, people struggle with Sad during the summer months’ longer days, but this is the exception. As we end off Mental Health Awareness month, we take a closer look at the condition of Sad, and whether paying attention to diet and lifestyle can make a happy difference.

The typical picture of someone suffering with Sad is that they slow down — generally sleep more, are less productive and less energetic, eat more (particularly starchy and sweet foods), have poorer concentration and withdraw socially. This pattern occurs (and recurs) at a similar time of year each year. South African statistics show that between two and three percent of the general population may have Sad. Another 15% have a less-severe experience described as the “winter blues”.

There is no single cause of Seasonal Affective Disorder, and the specific cause remains unknown. The common factors influencing most mental-health conditions include genetics, age and the body’s natural chemical make-up. These same factors may increase the likelihood of developing Sad, as well as a few specific influences.

• The body’s circadian rhythm, or biological clock

Autumn and winter’s reduced hours and intensity of sunlight may disrupt the body’s internal clock, causing confusion of sleep and awake times. This disruption of circadian rhythms may lead to feelings of depression.

• Serotonin levels

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter in the brain responsible for balancing moods. A drop in serotonin might play a role in seasonal affective disorder. Reduced sunlight, poor diet and increased stress levels can cause a drop in serotonin that may trigger depression.

• Melatonin levels

Changes of season can disrupt the balance of the hormone melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.

Women are diagnosed with Sad three times more often than men, but men who do experience Sad have more severe symptoms. A personal or family history of depression increases the risk of struggling with the seasonal disorder. Perhaps the most obvious risk factor is living far from the equator and receiving the least sunlight.

Those in northern Europe and northern Canada, as well as the southern most parts of New Zealand, are more susceptible (not to mention winter at the Antarctic research stations). Historically, South Africa has not had a high incidence of Sad, but vitamin D deficiency is on the rise, indicating less exposure to sunlight even in our sunny country. Sunscreens, less outdoor activity and increasingly sedentary lifestyles may all be contributing factors.

Diagnosis is only made once other causes for depression are ruled out, and the seasonal effect has been experienced for two consecutive years.

Vitamin D is increased by exposure of the skin to sunlight, and hence has been suggested as a supplement to replace what is lost in poor sunlight conditions. In one study, vitamin D was found to be better than light therapy in the treatment of Sad. Further studies are necessary to confirm these findings.

In the general treatment of depression, research has not shown vitamin D supplementation to be consistently effective and necessary. However, patients with clinical depression who are taking standard antidepressant medication have shown reduced depressive symptoms with the addition of vitamin D.

While the jury is still out on the use of vitamin D to treat depression, a few simple lifestyle tips may make a good difference.

• Brighten up your life

Open the curtains and blinds, allowing more light into your environment. Spending time outdoors helps to lift the mood even if it is chilly. Wrap up warmly and go for a walk, or set up a picnic blanket in a sunny spot on your lawn. A little sun exposure is linked to better mood and higher endorphin levels, as well as feeling more relaxed.

• Avoid a stimulant overload

Cut down on caffeine, sugar and alcohol. These offer a quick-fix energy boost, but are inevitably followed by a crash, and they also deplete essential hormones in the long run. Stay well-hydrated by drinking water, herbal teas, diluted fruit juices and milk drinks.

• Exercise to feel good

Exercise isn’t simply a chore for those wanting to lose weight or improve their overall health. Working up a sweat for 15 minutes to 20 minutes a day naturally improves mood and energy levels by increasing serotonin and dopamine levels.

• Taking supplements

Supplements such as vitamin D or omega-three fish oils might be helpful, but neither will cancel out the adverse effects of a poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle. Eating well and keeping active are the best ways to forge ahead towards springtime.

• Sharon Hultzer is a consulting dietitian. She can be reached at

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