Aahh the joys of preparing for winter. Digging out your woolly jumpers from under the bed. Stocking up on thermal underwear. Promising yourself that this year you really will make all those soups and stews from scratch, instead of buying ready-made. For some of us, though, winter requires more serious preparation – Seasonal Affective Disorder (also known as, wittily enough, “SAD”) affects up to 20% of each country’s population.
Typically worsening where cloud cover and short nights are common, SAD is most commonly associated with winter (although it’s also applied to depression that’s only triggered by summer) and there’s a huge range of seasonal depression help, ideas and even gadgets available online, on the high street and from your doctor.
1. Go go gadget
If you can afford a potentially helpful SAD gadget, it’s always worth suspending any disbelief and seeing if it works for you. Your mental health is very much worth looking after, and if a gadget improves your symptoms, that’s great, no matter whether or not it works for your friends or family.
That said, if you are going to spend money on any of the SAD gadgets on the market, I recommend starting with one of the sunrise alarm clocks. Mine cost about £25 in 2004, and it’s brilliant. 30 minutes before my alarm goes off, the light starts to glow dimly, then slowly grows brighter over the next half an hour, until it’s fully lit.
At bedtime, I turn the light up full, set the alarm, and the light slowly fades out, mimicking sunset as I drift off to sleep. It helps to regulate my sleeping patterns over winter, and I feel far less groggy on waking in the dark mornings.
2. Full spectrum light
If you have plenty of cash to spare, you could try a full spectrum sun lamp, which you’re supposed to sit in front of for 20 minutes or so each day. This stimulates your body’s production of serotonin, which improves your mood, and inhibits melatonin, which makes you sleepy. Light boxes can be expensive. They haven’t been approved by all the leading health authorities, they can cause side effects, and they carry the risk of skin damage. A couple of people I know have bought them and find them painfully bright, even for short periods spent not looking directly at the light.
However, clinical trials have shown an improvement in mood after treatment from a 10,000 lux light box. If at all possible it might be worth hiring or borrowing one to test for yourself. Alternatively, there’s a range of lightbulbs available which claim to emit a similar full spectrum of wavelengths – they’re much cheaper than the light boxes, but aren’t as bright.
3. Positive or negative?
The latest trend seems to be for ion emitting gadgets. Ions are atoms or molecules with a tiny electrical charge – either positive or negative. In nature, they are often produced where there is turbulence and friction – thunderstorms and waterfalls, for example – and are colloquially associated with a feeling of wellbeing.
Some scientific studies have backed up the hearsay, but the findings were far more complicated than simply “yes it works”. Tests on SAD sufferers were undertaken in conjunction with light therapy, but there is some evidence for an improvement. Until more conclusive data appears, you might be best off saving your pennies, unless you’re wealthy and have exhausted all the other available options.