‘Tis the season to be melancholy

‘So is there any truth to the idea that seasons affect our mood?’

Clocks have gone back. Days have gotten shorter. Weather has gotten colder. Winter has officially begun and with Christmas only being four weeks away you might find yourself not particularly excited about it. This time of year can make even the jolliest of people fed up and depressed, wishing to be flying off on a sun holiday instead of suffocating amongst the throngs of Christmas shoppers. However for some people it can be a more serious condition, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is a condition which causes depression that becomes worse around a particular season and it is usually, but not always, during winter. People experiencing SAD can get any of the standard symptoms of depression but they will either only happen during one part of the year, or get significantly worse in one season.

The most common symptoms of SAD are depression, loss of energy, fatigue, trouble concentrating, increased appetite, weight gain and withdrawal from family and friends. However, diagnosing SAD can be quite controversial. Don’t most people have an unwillingness to leave their warm, cosy bed in the morning when it’s cold and dark outside? SAD can also occur during the summer months. Most people find themselves more energetic and active during the summer months but for those suffering with SAD, it is difficult to understand why they become depressed. “Summer, what summer?” remains a reasonable question for us in Ireland.  I for one can agree to this and can also relate to some of the other symptoms. Does this mean that I have SAD? Do I need treatment? Or am I, like many other Irish just sick of terrible weather?

If you stop someone in the street and ask them how they feel about shorter days and colder weather I can guarantee everyone is going to have the same response, in true Irish style, “‘tis awful depressing isn’t it?”. You can argue that our culture is purely based on the weather with sayings such as “there’s grand drying out”, translation “it’s a windy day”, instilled into our brains since birth. Are we a weather obsessed nation? Perhaps the Irish were born with having SAD. I can’t speak on behalf of any other country, but Ireland was dealt a poor card regards climate, so maybe the Irish don’t have SAD maybe they’re just genuinely sad about the lack of sun on our beautiful island.

So is there any truth to the idea that seasons affect our mood? Certainly the diagnosis of SAD has been long well established by doctors but the exact causes of SAD are still unknown. Some scientists think that certain hormones made deep in the brain trigger attitude-related changes at certain times of year. A study was conducted in Norway by Morken and colleagues which examined the rate of admissions to psychiatric hospitals, with particular reference to patients with affective illnesses. Over 35,000 such admissions were examined, with significant monthly variations noted in admissions for depression. The study found there were gender differences with such admissions, peaking in November for women and in April for men.

Experts believe that SAD may be related to these hormonal changes. One theory is that less sunlight during fall and winter leads to the brain making less serotonin, a chemical linked to brain pathways that regulate mood. When nerve cell pathways in the brain that regulate mood don’t function normally, the result can be feelings of depression, along with symptoms of fatigue and weight gain.

Referring back to the Norwegian study, speaking on behalf of the female population, I think it’s safe to say that all us ladies put on a little extra weight during the winter months. Gone are the bikinis and shorts, replaced by thick warm jumpers and woolly tights. It is entirely understandable that women ditch the diets in favour of warm comforting food. I, myself know that I am more keen to stay in on a cold winter’s night warming my hands with a hot chocolate instead of exercising, outside, freezing.

If you do feel you have SAD the good news is that it’s treatable. The most effective way to treat SAD is with light therapy. This involves sitting near to a special bright light (10-40 times stronger than a normal bulb) for a few hours a day. Studies have proven a 50- 80% remission of symptoms for those who have used light therapy treatment. Other treatments such as anti- depressants are also available. Make sure you consult your GP before starting any treatment as they will advise the best for you.

Light therapy for SAD has advanced in the recent months with the release of a new device to Ireland called Luminette. Luminette is lightweight and easy to use and only needs to be used 20- 25 minutes a day. Speaking with a representative from McCabes Pharmacy, they said that their customers are delighted with how quick and easy the treatment was. I had a demonstration of ‘this amazing new product’ in store to see for myself how it works. I was intrigued by the device, which resembles futuristic glasses, that promises so much. Can this really banish the winter blues? Luminette sits across your forehead and doesn’t interfere with your sight, allowing you to go about your daily tasks. It emits a ‘safe light spectrum of blue enriched bright light’. Luminette states that ‘it’s completely safe causing no harm or damage to the eyes for the wearer.’ To me this sounds like a miracle worker. Who wouldn’t love the idea of banishing their fatigue, lack of energy, depressed mood or increased appetite? But if you want to find out yourself if this lives up to all it claims it will set you back €219.00. You can purchase one in any McCabes Pharmacy throughout the country.

You may seem sceptical of the ‘winter blues’ but for sufferers it is a serious condition. I admit that I was somewhat sceptical at first but after looking into it I can see how it is a serious condition. The majority of us will experience it during our life; after all you can’t live in Ireland without getting depressed over the weather.  

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