Digital Editor Weronika Bialek evaluates the ways to deal with Seasonal Affective Disorder as we approach the winter season.

Digital editor and final year French and Russian student.
Images by Aaron Burden

In recent years, seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD, has been increasingly scrutinised by researchers and scientists. Despite this, SAD seems increasingly more common. It is believed that it affects 2 million people in the UK and more than 12 million people across northern Europe. 

In our daily lives, it may seem that almost everyone is suffering from seasonal depression to a certain extent, as many blame their low moods on the darker days and colder mornings. However, considering the research against the existence of SAD, is it possible that we are simply using the bad weather and longer nights as an excuse for our bad habits?

The idea that we are more likely to be sad and depressed in winter is based more so in folklore rather than science.

It is believed that SAD may be caused by shorter days which impact the production of melatonin and serotonin in the brain which in turn can have an effect on our mood. However, a large US survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control in 2016 — which studied the connection between seasons, latitude, sunlight exposure, and depression — found no evidence for a link between seasonal factors and depression. According to one of the leaders of this survey, Steve LoBello, the idea that we are more likely to be sad and depressed in winter is based more so in folklore rather than science. 

A 2008 Norwegian literature review reported that even in Norway’s extreme environment, they found ‘no correlation between depressive symptoms and the amount of environmental light.’ These results may come as a surprise to many, especially those who live in countries where the winters are quite harsh or long, but according to research, it seems that we are no more depressed in the winter than in the summer. 

Does this mean that SAD is just an excuse for coming late to work in the winter? Probably not, feeling sluggish during the colder months is quite natural, however, as explained by Brennen, ‘being groggy when you’re woken up from a deep sleep has nothing to do with depression.’ The colder months themselves are unlikely to cause depression in people that don’t usually experience it, although it is likely to make people who already suffer from depression feel worse. 

It is likely to make people who already suffer from depression feel worse.

If seasonal depression is not as common as it seems, or perhaps doesn’t even exist, why do we see so much talk about SAD the second we get to October? I think that one reason is clear, it is an easy way for supplement businesses to make money. Even if not all of us become depressed during the winter, most of us do feel more tired and we would all love a quick fix for the sluggishness that we feel. 

Although it is true that, especially in Britain, many do need to take vitamin D supplements during the darker months, most other SAD remedies have little scientific backing. A big remedy that is offered against SAD are antidepressants, even though their long-term use can often bring about harmful effects and in the UK, 17% of the adult population are on antidepressants already. Supplements that are pushed during the winter period also include St. John’s wort, which is marketed to improve depression, anxiety and sleep issues, although it is not yet well studied, and the studies that have been done on it have not produced enough evidence to support treating depression with St. John’s wort.

Perhaps the best way of beating SAD and seasonal mood changes is by adjusting our schedules to best suit the winter months. For example, for those that do not need to be up early in the morning, perhaps it would be better to wake up 2 hours later and go to sleep 2 hours later. Or, if it is the cold that keeps you from getting out from your bed covers, most thermostats allow you to set your heating to start at certain hours, so you could set it to always turn on 15 minutes before you wake up. Taking vitamin D may help our immune system fight off winter colds, and potentially combat these depressive symptoms, so it is also a good way of keeping our mood up during the winter. 

Many people might also be less likely to exercise during the colder months, and it is the lack of exercise which is more likely to make an impact on your mood. Of course, getting out of the house for a run is more difficult when it is dark and raining, but that can be worked around by finding indoor sports activities, or taking advantage of the few sunny dry days to go on a walk.

These “hacks” may seem trivial, but I think that it’s much more important to change our habits for the winter to suit the weather and time changes rather than attempt to keep our habits from the summer if we want to avoid SAD and make the most of the colder months.

For more articles from Comment, read:

What makes a Christmas film special?

Frosty First Year: Asking for Help

Being young and chronically ill