Winter blues - or is it more?

Christmas is over and it'll be months until the spring. Most of us long for longer days and a bit of sunlight at this time of year, but for some people, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) makes winter life a misery. It seems that sunshine affects the messages sent to your brain by your eyes. This affects your hormones and brain chemicals. When daylight is in short supply chemicals vital to prevent depression drop too. That's why SAD doesn't affect people in summer and is less common in countries near the equator. Up to one in 50 Britons is thought to suffer from SAD. It's four times more common in women than in men, while depression is twice as common in women.

Could it just be winter blues?

Winter blues makes you feel a bit low, put on weight, feel more tired and want to curl up at home rather than going out. Life may be a bit less fun, but unlike SAD it doesn't take over your life and you can usually function normally.

What are the symptoms of depression?

If you're worried you might have depression or SAD, ask yourself if, in the last month or so, you've been bothered on more than half of days by:

- Feeling down, depressed or hopeless or

- Not enjoying things you usually enjoy.

If the answer is yes, consider if you've been troubled by other symptoms like poor concentration; problems sleeping or finding it hard to get up on time; feeling very tired; feeling that you've let others down; loss of appetite or overeating. Many people who aren't depressed get some of these symptoms, but it's worth talking to your doctor if you have several as depression may be at the root. Obviously, if you've felt so low that you've had thoughts that you'd be better off dead, you need to seek help urgently.

How does SAD differ from depression?

While SAD symptoms are similar to depression, you're more likely to feel hungry all the time and want to 'comfort eat' rather than losing your appetite. That means you may put on weight. You're also more likely to spend long hours sleeping and still find it hard to wake up rather than have problems getting to sleep or staying asleep. The timing of your symptoms is key - symptoms of SAD usually develop in autumn and lift around Easter

How can I help myself?

One of the best treatments for SAD and winter blues is getting out - easier said than done if you're feeling low and exhausted. Recruit a friend to join you for a walk in the middle of the day, and sit on a park bench for an hour or two if you can. Make it a brisk walk and you'll be exercising too - well proven to boost feelgood chemicals in the brain.

Do I need treatment?

Whether - and what - treatment you need will depend on your personal situation and the severity of your symptoms. Although SAD is caused by lack of daylight, it can definitely be made worse by life's problems. Talking therapy can be invaluable. Your GP can refer you to a counsellor if you need it - the aim will be to help you challenge the unhelpful thought processes that trigger or feed symptoms of depression or SAD.

In more severe cases, your doctor may recommend antidepressant tablets. Don't worry, they aren't addictive. For regular severe SAD, your doctor may recommend starting treatment in early autumn and stopping in spring each year.

Light up your life

Here's the deal. You buy a light box (your GP can advise - sadly they aren't available on the NHS). You sit two to three feet from it for 30 minutes to three hours every day (depending on the strength of the light). You feel better. You can have your treatment while you read, knit or watch TV.

Too good to be true? No - the light seems to send messages to the brain which affects your brain chemicals. It helps up to four in five people affected by SAD, sometimes within a week.

With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.