If the darker days of winter leave you feeling depressed, you are not alone; seasonal affective disorder is on the rise; but thankfully there is light at the end of the tunnel. HELLO! Beauty Editor Nadine Baggott explains…
The typical British winter can be summed up in three words: cold, dark and rainy. While most people take it in their stride, for some the end of British Summer Time signals the start of months of misery.
It is estimated that at least two million people in the UK experience seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, while a further ten million have a form of winter apathy and dysthymia, or persistent mild depression. In addition to feeling depressed, sufferers can be irritable, lethargic, lacking in energy and sleepy. Other common symptoms include anxiety, loss of libido and cravings for carbohydrates and sweet foods, which can lead to weight gain.
YOU ARE NOT ALONE
People of all ages can experience SAD, but it often starts when sufferers are aged between 18 and 30. It is more common in women, though increasing numbers of men now recognise that they are affected, too. SAD usually begins now that the clocks have gone back, then lasts through winter until the days eventually brighten in the spring.
Now a recognised mental health disorder, its causes remain unclear, but it is linked to a lack of strong daylight. On sunny days, UV light travels through the eye to the hypothalamus, a gland in the brain that controls sleep as well as appetite, mood and energy levels. When there is little light available it can lead to an increase in the production of the brain hormone melatonin, which makes us sleepy, and a reduction in the so-called happy hormone serotonin. This chemical helps regulate mood and low levels of serotonin are commonly found in people suffering from depression.
SEEING THE LIGHT
If you are suffering from SAD, here are some simple ways to help ease the symptoms and manage the problem:
Get outside as much as possible during daylight hours. Make the most of the early mornings before you go to work and get into a routine of walking or doing another outdoor activity for at least two hours every weekend – more if it’s sunny.
Consider taking St John’s Wort This herbal antidepressant is prescribed in some Scandinavian countries in winter when daylight is hard to come by. Talk to your GP or local pharmacist about possible contraindications.
Try using light therapy, which has been found to be a highly effective treatment. You will need a special light box that emits light of at least 2,500 lux – similar to that found on a bright summer’s day and five times stronger than the light emitted by an ordinary household lightbulb. Treatment should be started now, continuing until at least March.
It is not necessary to stare at the light; instead, ordinary tasks such as working, ironing or even cooking can all be carried out in front of the light box. Treatment time depends on the strength of the light; initially several hours may be needed – daily or less frequently – but with very bright boxes that emit light of 10,000 lux, 30-minute sessions may be all you require.
Many manufacturers and suppliers offer a free trial before you buy and it is worth taking advantage of this to find a box that suits you.
STEP INTO THE SPOTLIGHT
The latest development in the treatment of SAD combines light therapy with aromacology, the use of scents to lift the mood. Professor Tim Jacob at the University of Cardiff’s School of Biosciences, who is a leader in psychophysiology, has spent decades researching the effect that certain aromas have on our mood and memory. His findings helped him create Kodobio Sensory Therapy, which features a powerful light box calibrated to stimulate the pineal gland (the part of the brain responsible for the synthesis of melatonin and serotonin), combined with scents that work directly on the brain.
“I’ve always been concerned about traditional treatments for depression and have a cynical view of the drugs used and marketed,” says Professor Jacob. “So I was very keen to find an alternative to drugs that are not an answer to the problem. I have been working on the physiological and psychological effects of smell and it was clear that they could have an effect on mood. Then I realised that bright-light therapy could treat SAD and I had this lightbulb moment, ‘Why not put them together?’”
The result is a piece of equipment that can deliver aroma and light in one treatment, each element acting in a different way within the brain. Says Professor Jacob: "We have done pre-medical trials and found a major impact on factors that [affect] mood and depression. I first looked at citrus to lift the mood, lavender to calm and relax anxiety and mint to boost memory and concentration."
Research into lavender has shown that the active ingredient linalyl works to anaesthetise nerve pathways, while mint has been found to improve performance and boost concentration in athletes, with results described by Professor Jacob as "reproducible and robust". In clinical trials, citrus has been found to act as an antidepressant in rats and to ease depression in humans.
• For more details on the therapy, visit kodobio.com. The only place to have the treatment in the UK is at Michaeljohn Belgravia Medispa in London. It costs £35 for a 15-minute session; visit michaeljohn.co.uk.