How to survive the SAD winter blues

The clocks have gone back, the days are shorter and most of us are stuck in offices during the brief periods when the sun deigns...

The clocks have gone back, the days are shorter and most of us are stuck in offices during the brief periods when the sun deigns to make an appearance.

The end of long summer evenings and the onset of winter is a low point that most of us learn to live with, but for a few it signifies the beginning of a seriously disabling illness.

If you have noticed that you or any of your fellow ITers annually show signs of depression from September to April then you could be one of the estimated 500,000 people who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Esme Cutts works for the support group, the SAD Association, and suffers from the condition.

"I feel as if I'm going downhill every autumn and winter," she says, "I really do feel deprived of daylight and this makes me feel very tired and I find it difficult to concentrate. My sleep patterns are all over the place. I wake up really early and then when I should be getting up I just want to curl up and go back to sleep."

Typical symptoms include sleep problems, lethargy, over eating, depression, anxiety and mood changes.

The exact cause of SAD is unknown but low levels of the brain chemicals melatonin and serotonin are thought to be partly responsible. Light entering the eye stimulates neurotransmitters in the brain which control body functions like sleep, appetite and mood. Inadequate light levels cause this activity to slow, resulting in depression.

There is increasing awareness of the condition. Sufferers are affected differently and for some it is a lot milder, with the dominant symptoms being tiredness, lethargy and lack of concentration. This is far more common and is medically known as sub-syndromal SAD or, more usually, as winter blues.

According to professor Chris Thompson from the University of Southampton, an expert on SAD, 5.6% of people attending GP's surgeries suffer from SAD and another 10% fall victim to sub-syndromal SAD.

Unfortunately employers have not been very ready to acknowledge either condition and employees are still afraid to talk about it for fear of being penalised and considered lazy.

Pertemps, a recruitment agency, carried out a survey of office workers and found that 76% of those polled had experienced a variety of these symptoms but only 5% were aware that they were suffering from SAD.

Thirty-four per cent of respondents had marked symptoms and considered taking time off but felt unable to do so. They feared that colleagues (31%) and bosses (27%) would accuse them of shirking.

The most effective form of treatment is light therapy, which works in 85% of diagnosed cases. For between one and two hours a day sufferers must sit two to three feet away from a light box, usually on a table, allowing the light to shine directly through the eyes. The user can carry on working while stationary in front of the box. These are specially manufactured as ordinary light bulbs are not strong enough.

Average domestic or office lighting emits an intensity of 200-500 lux but the minimum dose necessary to treat SAD is 2,500 lux. The intensity of a bright summer day can be 100,000 lux.

So if anyone in the IT department is affected Thompson recommends buying a box from the chemist as well as the more standard treatment - "Get out on sunny days as much as possible, keep up an exercise programme and watch your diet."

What to do if you are feeling blue:

  • Invest in a light box

  • Always take a full hour for lunch and go outside

  • Eat soups and casseroles containing beans. They provide long lasting energy and contain tryptophan, an amino acid that is converted into serotonin in the body. Other foods that contain tryptophan include bananas, meat, fish, eggs, cheese and yogurt

  • Take a winter holiday in the sun

Ask your employer to:

  • Raise awareness of the condition

  • Make sure no-one works in a windowless annexed office

  • Create a coffee room fitted with light boxes for SAD sufferers

  • Hold pay reviews and morale-raising social events during the winter.

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