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Coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder, SAD...


You can manage your Seasonal Affective Disorder

I used to wonder why I felt a bit unhappy and emotionally out-of-sync with the world towards the end of every September. I'm naturally upbeat so it seemed strange that I wanted to hibernate.

Not only did I feel the world was grey and dreary but my personal habits changed, too. I craved comfort foods like chips and pies when normally I'm a healthy salad-eating type person. My sleep pattern became erratic veering between semi-insomnia and being able to "sleep for Britain".

A chance discussion with a colleague about these seasonal changes 14 years ago meant she showed me a research paper on SAD - Seasonal Affective Disorder. I immediately recognised myself.

I haven't looked back and you can do the same. But first understand your "enemy". SAD is caused by a biological imbalance when part of the brain, the hypothalamus, fails to switch off production of melatonin. Too much melatonin gives you the symptoms of SAD. Sunlight switches off production but with decreasing sunlight during the autumn and winter this fails in sufferers. But in spring and summer increasing sunlight helps switch melatonin production off again and symptoms disappear.

You're in good company if you experience symptoms as new research by charity SADA found more than 4 million people in the UK do. These symptoms are varied and include:

Unpleasant feelings of despair, sadness, or feeling “out of sorts” where there's no identifiable cause like a job loss or divorce for such feelings.

Sleeplessness, or the opposite, where you can barely drag yourself out of bed in the morning. You may feel an overwhelming urge to nap throughout the day.

You might feel constantly hungry or a lack of appetite. You may get food cravings that are either carbohydrate-based or for sweet things. It may become hard to resist comfort eating.

You experience a lack of interest in the things you normally enjoy. And have a general sense that you can’t be bothered with certain things.

Lack of concentration and memory problems can hamper you getting on with your job or even doing simple things like following a television programme or the story of a book.

Sex might be the last thing on your mind as you experience a loss of libido.

Those around you might notice that you’re irritable and you might be surprised by angry feelings that seem unwarranted.

You might also get every cold going as your immune response is lowered.

These things might be accompanied by anxiety or foreboding.

Your experience of SAD may be very different to another’s. Some, as I do, only have it in autumn while others have symptoms in winter. Serious cases may be symptomatic in both seasons. Some have mild symptoms and others are so seriously depressed they need anti-depressant medication, cognitive behavioural therapy, as well taking positive action to combat it.

If you suspect you have SAD speak to your doctor to for an appropriate diagnosis. If diagnosed don't suffer in silence as, sadly, the majority of people do. Try the following:

Light therapy is extremely effective (I wouldn't do without my lightbox) though it has varying degrees of effectiveness between sufferers. Though you can’t get light boxes on the NHS some health authorities rent them out. Purchase them online or at a trusted high-street chemist. To be effective light boxes must give out what's known as 10,000 lux. Place at a desk or other surface for convenient exposure.

Depending on the seriousness of your symptoms you should use between 30 minutes to three hours a day. Read the instructions as power varies between boxes.

Nourish yourself with fresh fruit and vegetables and regular meals that aren’t "ready meals".  Start the day with mood-enhancing porridge. Other great mood-foods include oily fish like salmon and mackerel, and turkey. Take vitamin supplements if unable to cook fresh foods.

Ensure good quality sleep by avoiding violent/exciting television or working on your computer at night.

Don't drink caffeine after 3pm and only have minimal alcohol.

Brief "catnaps" are fine of 15-20 minutes if you feel fatigued.

Try meditative relaxation to help to soothe any feelings of anxiety.

Take daily exercise preferably outside. Keep watch for natural sunlight and take your break during those moments. Discuss this with your boss so that they allow flexibility. You could also use a desktop lightbox at work.

Avoid excess stress by learning how to set limits. Say No to extra responsibilities that cause stress.

Resist the temptation to hibernate. It's important to keep connected to loved ones.

Talk yourself up, reminding yourself this is simply brain chemistry changes that you can combat.

If at all possible prioritise taking a winter sun holiday rather than a summer one.

Finally, SAD is nothing to be ashamed of. Hopefully taking these steps you'll feel a bit happier.

For more info -

A similar article was published in the Express Newspaper


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My new book The Emotional Eater's Diet is published in the UK on May 15 - I’m very excited as I hope emotional eaters - women or men will find it helpful. Each year 2/3s of people start a diet and 20% start a new diet each month. Yet 95% of diets aren’t successful.

I firmly believe that emotional eating to soothe difficult feelings is the culprit behind most of this failure. My book has a huge range of practical tips/strategies to help understand your emotions and manage your appetite. There are mini-quizes and real case studies.

It’s available to preorder on Amazon. Please remember that food can fuel your energy needs but not your emotional needs. Take care!

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