With the colder winter temperatures and the drop in daylight hours, many people find that they are affected by the ‘winter blues’ or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is a medically recognised form of clinical depression and has many similar symptoms.
However, it is distinguished from classical clinical depression by its seasonal nature. For some this is a seriously debilitating condition that can completely disrupt their lives.
Symptoms of SAD include:
- needing to sleep more than usual and difficulty waking up in the morning
- loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities
- feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness
- a persistent low mood
- cravings for carbohydrates
- feeling lethargic
- difficulty in concentrating
- the desire to withdraw socially
- decreased libido
The exact cause of SAD is not known. It is mostly attributed to the shorter daylight hours during autumn and winter, which cause changes in the body’s biological clock and the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is the part of the brain that maintains the body’s internal balance. It regulates hunger, thirst and our responses to pleasure and pain, all of which are key factors in low mood and depression.
It’s thought that about 8% of adults suffer with acute symptoms SAD in the UK, with a further 20% of the population experiencing milder symptoms that are not severe enough to be diagnosable as SAD. According to research, women are 40% more likely than men to experience symptoms of this condition.
People who suffer SAD usually feel perfectly well during the spring and summer months. But as the days get darker in the approach to winter, they find it more and more difficult to function as they normally would. The effects of SAD can be felt from September through to April and are at their strongest from November through to the end of February.
You should consider seeing your GP if you think you might have SAD and you’re finding it difficult to cope. Your GP may wish to carry out an assessment to see if you are suffering from the condition. This might include asking you questions about your mood, lifestyle, eating habits and sleeping patterns, along with any seasonal changes in your behaviours and thought patterns. The GP will offer recommendations for treatment that may include lifestyle measures, light therapy, talking therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), or antidepressant medication.
As mentioned previously, the precise cause of this debilitating condition is unknown. However, the reduced exposure to sunlight in the winter months is thought to play a significant part.
The NHS website says “The main theory is that a lack of sunlight might stop a part of the brain called the hypothalamus working properly, which may affect the production of melatonin, serotonin and body’s internal clock (circadian rhythm)”.
Centuries ago, three quarters of the population worked outdoors in the the daylight, whereas today only about one tenth of us work outdoors. Many of us work in offices and retail stores, several of which will have tinted or in some instances, no windows at all. Artificial light replaces the natural light of the sun. And when we do go out in the sun we wear sunglasses, continuing to block the sunlight from our eyes. Added to this, many people have long commutes, which in winter, they do in darkness. This can lead to people going days, even weeks on end without seeing any sunlight.
Our eyes are key to us receiving light. This natural light controls our moods, our appetites, our libido and our sleep. Research shows that lack of sunlight disrupts the brain’s chemical balance. The longer hours of darkness in winter coupled with the cold wintery temperatures add greatly to this disorder.
A little bit of science
Known as the ‘third eye’ in some circles, the pineal gland is part of our endocrine system. This small gland, located deep in the centre of the brain, is important because it produces the neurotransmitter melatonin. Melatonin regulates our circadian rhythm (our body’s 24-hour biological cycle) and induces sleep. If we ignore the signals to sleep – a common occurrence in our twenty-four-seven world – our natural sleep rhythms can be thrown off balance. We naturally produce more melatonin in winter months.
Exposure to daylight slows the production of melatonin, at the same time increasing the production of serotonin, a key feel-good neurotransmitter. SAD is strongly linked to reduced levels of serotonin. Our circadian rhythm shifts in response to changes in the quantity of daylight. This shift can affect the body’s production of serotonin and other hormones. Research has found that this disruption to our body’s biological cycle, together with the decreased production of serotonin, can trigger depression.
Another neurotransmitter, Dopamine, is associated with the reward pathways in our brain. One of the most common conditions linked to a dopamine deficiency is depression. Diets high in sugar and saturated fats can suppress dopamine. Studies have shown that dopamine depletion causes a temporary worsening of symptoms of SAD, in particular fatigue and lethargy.
What you can to do to ease symptoms
One conventional medicine response involves the prescription of an anti-depressant that blocks the uptake of serotonin in the body, thus leaving higher levels of serotonin for the brain. However, some medications can have side effects that are difficult to deal with. This is where aromatherapy and essential oils can come in. When inhaled, essential oil molecules go straight to the limbic system, which because of its relationship to the endocrine system, allows for balanced hormone production and release. The hypothalamus is part of the limbic system, and when we stimulate the hypothalamus, we return it to its optimun ‘set point’.
Using aromatherapy and essential oils to alleviate some of the effects of SAD gives you a natural way to manage the symptoms. This can help you feel that you are more in control of the condition, rather than the condition being in control of you.
These essential oils can help to boost energy levels, lift your spirits and support you emotionally on these dark and gloomy wintery days:
Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
This fresh, slightly spicy essential oil boosts energy levels, lifting lethargy, low mood and depression, as well as helping to clear your mind and improve poor memory.
Caution: Do not use in the first trimester of pregnancy.
Bergamot (Citrus aurantium ssp. Bergamia)
With its fresh, tangy and slightly floral aroma, Bergamot has a stimulating yet balancing effect on the mind. Cooling and refreshing, it helps calm negative emotional reactions such as stress, anxiety and anger. It also restores motivation and a sense of optimism.
Caution: Bergamot essential oil is phototoxic – unless it is the bergapten-free version – look for ‘Bergamot FCF’ on the label. Do not apply to skin which may be exposed to sunlight.
Clary Sage (Salvia sclarea)
Known for its ability to bring about a feeling of euphoria, Clary Sage’s sweet and earthy aroma balances and settles the mind, while at the same time bringing clarity.
Caution: Do not use clary oil in combination with alcohol (i.e. do not drink for a few hours either before or after using this oil). Avoid during pregnancy.
Frankincense (Boswellia carterii)
Frankincense, with its rich, balsamic, incense-like and slightly citrusy aroma is well known for its ability to induce the right frame of mind for meditation. When inhaled this lovely esssential oil encourages slower and deeper breathing, bringing about a calming, relaxing effect on the mind and emotions.
Geranium (Pelargonium x asperum) Soothing yet revitalising in nature, Geranium is a great essential oil for relieving stress. It has a balancing effect on the nervous system and emotions, along with a calming and centering effect on the mind. When inhaled as part of a massage or a vapourised room fragrance, it makes a beautifully aromatic pick-me-up.
Grapefruit (Citrus x paradisi)
Aromatically fresh, light and moderately sweet, Grapefruit essential oil is cleansing and refreshing, clearing the mind of heavy negative thoughts. Gabriel Mojay in his book Aromatherapy for Healing the Spirit says that “The oil is particularly suited for those individuals who tense and under pressure, resort to ‘comfort-eating’ as a means of dealing with difficult emotions”.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
This versatile essence helps dispel anxiety, instilling relaxation and a sense of peace. It soothes the mind and restores a general feeling of wellbeing. Lavender has a regulating effect on the emotions, making it useful for mood swings and emotional instabiliy. Its aroma instils a feeling of calm that allows you to let go of obsessive thinking, irritation and anger.
Lemon (Citrus limonum)
This citrusy scent is energising, rejuvenating and uplifting – perfect for bringing your zest back during the cold dark winter months. It helps clear foggy and muddled thinking, refreshing your mind and sharpening your focus.
Caution: Lemon essential oil is phototoxic so avoid exposure to direct sunlight or sunbed rays for 12 hours following application of the diluted essential oil to the skin. Lemon may cause skin irritation or sensitisation in some individuals.
Neroli (Citrus aurantium var. amara)
Soothing and calming, Neroli instils strength and comfort. Neroli’s beautiful scent has a clear uplifting quality which makes it helpful for mental lethargy and depression.
Peppermint (Mentha x piperita)
Clarifying, stimulating and uplifting, this is a super essential oil for quickly clearing and refreshing your mind. It aids clear thinking and soothes agitation and frustration.
Caution: Do not use Peppermint essential oil if you are pregnant or breast-feeding, or on children under 5 years of age. Avoid using if you have epilepsy, a high fever or heart disease. Don’t use immediately before going to sleep as it might keep you awake.
Rose (Rosa damascena)
The floral, rich aroma of Rose essential oil is sweetly uplifting. With its mild anti-depressant effect, this essence lifts low mood and increases concentration. Traditionally a herb of love, Rose brings warmth and comfort, lifting despondency, dispelling feelings of loneliness and helping to restore a sense of wellbeing.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
This stimulating and uplifting aroma stimulates your brain, helping with poor memory and concentration. It gives a lift to both mood and energy levels, as well as strengthening your confidence and sense of self-worth.
Caution: Avoid during pregnancy and breast feeding. Don’t use on children younger than 2 years of age. Due to its highly stimulating nature, Rosemary is not suitable for individuals with epilepsy or high blood pressure.
Sweet Orange (Citrus sinensis)
Evervescent, warm, tangy and sweetly cheerful, Sweet Orange gives your energy a boost and uplifts your mood. It helps dispel moodiness and irritability and instils a more positive attitude, all of which can help you to relax and let go.
Ylang ylang (Cananga odorata)
A sensual scent that is relaxing and uplifting, Ylang Ylang can be very supportive in cases of low self-esteem, low mood, tension, stress and anxiety.
Vapourised citrus essential oils are especially effective for lifting low mood. A combination of 4 drops of Lemon, 3 drops of Bergamot and two drops of Sweet Orange added to a diffuser or essential oil burner is a perfect for a quick pick-me-up and to help lift your mood.
A lovely nurturing aromatic blend is 4 drops of Lavender, 2 drops of Bergamot and 1 drop of Rose in 10ml of carrier such as Jojoba oil. Bergamot is like having sunshine in a bottle and is especially uplifting, whilst Lavender is incredibly relaxing, and Rose, with its exquisite aroma, has balancing and uplifting properties. This combination of essentials oils offers a gorgeous aroma that can be enjoyed in a massage or in an aromatherapy bath. Another alternative is to add the essential oils to a base cream or lotion in the same proportions and apply morning and night.
For a positive boost on those back-to-work Mondays, try the following combination in your diffuser or oil burner: 4 drops of Grapefruit, 2 drops of Neroli, 1 drop of Geranium and 1 drop of Peppermint.
To restore positivity and to support you in building self-esteem and confidence, combine 3 drops of Neroli, 2 drops of Frankincense and 1 drop of Ylang Ylang with 10ml of your carrier of choice and apply the blend morning and evening. Or add two drops of each to a very warm bath. Stir the water well to disperse the oils. Relax in the bath for about 20 minutes. And breathe…
Therapeutic massage and meditation have been found to increase serotonin and dopamine levels – consider having a massage once a week and adding a meditation practice to your wellbeing regime. The meditation practice can be as liitle as five minutes a day. The important thing is to give yourself this time for your self-care.
Also, consider taking Vitamin D supplements. Known as the sunshine vitamin, vitamin D deficiency has been linked to clinical depression, and those affected by SAD often have low levels of this vitamin. The NHS recommendation is that “everyone (including pregnant and breastfeeding women) should consider taking a daily supplement containing 10 micrograms of vitamin D during the autumn and winter”. Adding this supplement to your daily diet could help you feel better while at the same time improving your bone health and supporting your immune system.
As well as using the aromatherapy suggestions above, try to absorb as much natural daylight as you can, ideally one to two hours per day. Light therapy using a light box and can help improve your mood considerably. This involves sitting by the light box for around 30 minutes to one hour every morning. You could also consider using a dawn simulator light to wake you up in the mornings. The light produced by the light box simulates the sunlight that’s missing during the darker winter months. It’s thought the light may improve SAD by slowing your brain’s production of melatonin and increasing its production of serotonin.
Some important words of caution
Bergamot essential oil (mentioned above) is normally produced by cold expression from the rind of the fruit. This version contains furocumarins, which are photosensitising. A distilled version of Bergmmot – Bergamot FCF – is available which is naturally furocumarin free. Choose this distilled (furocumarin free) oil for skin application if you are planning to go out in direct sunlight or are using a lightbox as part of your therapy.
Essential oils need to be diluted in a base cream or carrier oil before being applied to your skin. Up to 6 drops in total can be added to a very warm bath. Wait till the bath is ready and at the right temperature for you before adding your blend of essential oils. Stir the water vigourously to ensure the oils are well dispersed. With aromatherapy, less is often more when working with pure undiluted aromatherapy oils.
Always keep essential oils of out the reach of children. Do not ingest essential oils. Keep them away from your eyes and mouth.
If you are under medical supervision or on medication, please consult with your medical team before using aromatherapy essential oils.
Mojay, Gabriel Aromatherapy for Healing the Spirit, Gaia Books Ltd, 1997
NHS website, https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder-sad/ (Accessed December 2019)