Winter’s SAD toll

In some parts of Australia, winters just have to be endured – the start of cooler weather can be refeshing, yet come August, we’re craving those balmy days. But could a drop in your sense of wellbeing during winter be Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)? Clinical nutritionist and naturopath Brooke Benson Campbell explains the warning signs and what you should do to ward off those winter blues.


Q. Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) restricted to winter or is it simply just widespread in winter?

A. The effects of SAD are recurring and have a seasonal pattern that begins during autumn and ends with the warmth of spring. The shorter days and lack of sunlight take a toll on our mood and overall wellness in the winter months.

Those affected by the disorder have difficulty regulating their serotonin levels, which is responsible for balancing mood throughout the year.

How can we tell the difference between SAD and just feeling a bit down?
Seasonal Affective Disorder, unlike the ‘Winter Blues’, is a clinically diagnosed type of major depression which is influenced by seasonal changes.

What are the key contributing factors?
Those suffering from SAD have difficulty regulating the neurotransmitter serotonin, a chemical compound that is believed to be responsible for balancing mood.

Those with SAD also have difficulty with overproduction of melatonin, which is a hormone that regulates sleep. The combination of low serotonin and increased melatonin production causes changes to the body’s internal clock, the circadian rhythm. These chemical changes cause mood changes, lack of motivation and depressive symptomology.

Do food choices play a part? And sunshine?
Yes – food choices can play a part in the severity of SAD symptoms. Studies show people who were suffering from SAD tended to improve as their levels of vitamin D in the body increased over the course of a year. Vitamin D is absorbed naturally from sun exposure, so getting out into the winter sun for 30 minutes a day is definitely helpful.

Foods high in vitamin D such as fatty fish (salmon, tuna, sardines) and egg yolks are also great additions to your winter diet. Studies suggest that SAD is less common in those who consume more omega-3 fatty acids (found in fatty fish). In fact, one of the largest studies ever conducted on depression and SAD found that a high concentration of fish oil supplement (1050mg EPA and 150mg DHA) produces similar results to that of an antidepressant, making fish oil and fatty fish your best friend during the cold winter months. Furthermore, other benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D include joint support, bone health and immune support.

Are people in the northern parts of Australia affected to the same extent as those in the colder regions?
People living in northern Australia are generally not as affected by SAD, as they are exposed to warmer weather and higher levels of sunshine throughout winter. This allows them to enjoy nature and outdoor exercise at a greater rate during the colder months – both of which are useful in the treatment of SAD and depression. However, it’s not all roses in the Top End – research from Charles Darwin University shows that tropical heat is linked to higher rates of anxiety, hostility and violence, as well as fewer hours of sleep and a general increase in crime rates!

What are the key warning signs?
Key warning signs include extreme tiredness (not altered by a good night’s sleep) and irritability combined with an intense desire for carbs and a desire to avoid all social situations. If you have been experiencing these symptoms for two weeks or more, seek advice from a medical professional.

What to do next

  • Make your environment brighter. Act like a lizard and search for the sun. Just 30 minutes per day is proven to fight the winter blues, so open blinds and curtains, trim back tree branches and sit close to windows to absorb as much light as possible. Boost your vitamin D with a lunchtime walk in the sunshine; rug up and read or reply to emails in whatever small spot of momentary warmth you can find.
  • Exercise. A 2005 study from Harvard University found that exercising for 30 minutes a day five times a week (or 60 minutes a day three times a week) improved symptoms of mild to moderate depression. So get moving.
  • Look after yourself. Soak in a warm bubble-bath, curl up with a good book, or treat yourself to a massage in the comfort of your own home.

Massage has been shown to provide benefits such as reduced anxiety and improved sleep, while regular massage sessions work to increase serotonin and reduce depression.  Massage therapy also assists in the regulation of circadian rhythms, so if you’re suffering from stress or insomnia, an evening massage may just be the trick for a deeper sleep.

Have you noticed your mood changes during winter? Could it be SAD?

Brooke Benson Campbell (BHSc) is a clinical nutritionist and naturopath with Blys, an on-demand wellness app that takes massage and wellness services into the home or workplace. Her mission is to inspire others to use the tools of nutrition and self-care to cleanse, energise and glow from within. 


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Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

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