In this blog we explore the relationship between ADHD and SAD, otherwise known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, and 7 Tips to Help you overcome the winter blues…
So it’s that time of year again. The clocks go back as we experience shorter, darker, and colder days. And of course many of us are missing the sun and warmth. But whilst many of us are looking forward to the end of winter, some of us experience more than feeling “a little blue.”
Some of us have a condition called SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is actually a form of seasonal depression, which is more than just missing the sun; it really is a chemical-hormonal condition.
Now interestingly, people with ADHD seem to be more prone to SAD than the general population. Personally, I came to realise my own tendency toward Seasonal depression (SAD) back in the winter of 2017, but come October 2018 I decided that I wasn’t going to let the winter blues get the best of me. So I came up with a plan of action, and followed it through.
And the good news is, it worked. So in this article I’d like to share with you what I found out about SAD and its relationship to ADHD, and more importantly, what you can do about it. That’s right, now it’s your turn to beat the winter blues…
What is SAD exactly?
SAD is a seasonal form of depression. As the seasons change, there is a shift in our “biological internal clocks” or Circadian rhythm due partly to changes in sunlight, or lack thereof.
Because the days are shorter and we experience more darkness, one of the things that happens is that our pineal gland in the brain, releases more melatonin than normal. Melatonin is the hormone that is released when it’s dark, telling us to sleep.
Of course that’s really helpful when we want to go to sleep, but when we’re awake it can lead to imbalanced brain chemistry and symptoms of depression.
In addition, what with the cold weather, the festive holiday season which can bring up a lot of emotions and conflict for some of us, and of course what with our ADHD and anxiety, this can turn into a recipe for disaster. That said, keep reading, because I promise that there is light at the end of the tunnel!
The Symptoms of SAD
The symptoms include:
- feeling sluggish or having “foggy brain”
- poor motivation and low productivity
- becoming withdrawn. Lacking previous interest in socialisation and activities.
- Feeling unhappy, irritable, depressed, anxious, and/or hopeless.
- Disturbances in circadian rhythm, i.e. difficulty falling asleep, or waking up.
In many ways the symptoms of SAD are very similar to depression generally, except that it is seasonal. It tends to come on in winter.
Of course, all of us are affected by the lack of sunlight to some degree, especially in countries in the northern latitudes, but SAD really can be severe for some people. And when you have ADHD and SAD it can be twice as challenging.
Are people with ADHD more prone to SAD?
While estimates of the prevalence of SAD in the general population vary from country and state to state, most estimates vary between almost zero to about 10%, and often higher in countries of northern latitude.
SAD appears to be more common in those over 35, and females, and yes, it does appear to be more common in those with ADHD. Estimates for SAD within the ADHD population range from 10 or 20% and upwards of 27%.
Meanwhile, many psychiatrists and experts on ADHD, have noted that whilst not all those with ADHD display clinical levels of SAD, to some degree most of them appear to be more sensitive than normal to seasonal changes. ADHD and SAD often go together.
Why is SAD more common in those with ADHD?
Well SAD is a condition whereby some people are more sensitive to the changing of the seasons and fluctuation of sunlight. This relates to the release of the hormone melatonin, as we discussed earlier, and what is called the “circadian rhythm”, our own internal biological clock.
Now what is interesting, and what may explain this higher incidence of SAD within the ADHD population, is that children and adults with ADHD frequently have sleep problems, issues with circadian rhythm, and also have a poor sense of time.
Well of course, seasonal depression is related to changes in sunlight, which is – biologically – where we get our sense of time from. The sun! Now if we factor in the fact that people with ADHD tend to hyper-sensitive emotionally and physically, it could also be the case that we are extra-sensitive to the changes of the seasons and fluctuations in light.
Your “Beat the Winter Blues Action Plan”!
So, if you feel that you or your child with ADHD may also be suffering from SAD, the question you’re likely asking is, what can be done about it? Well, I’ve been busy tackling my own SAD, and want to share with you my 7 Tips to beat the winter blues…
- Pay a visit to your Doctor or ADHD psychiatrist, and discuss your concerns with them. They may be able to diagnose SAD, and discuss possible treatments.
- Make sure to open all the curtains in the morning and switch the lights on, and maybe use brighter indoor lighting. I know it sounds obvious and simple, but it’s often the simple stuff that we tend to miss.
- Make sure, even when it’s cold and cloudy outside, to get outside as much as possible. It’s still much brighter outside than it is inside, even during the winter. To get this in perspective, on a bright summer’s day the light level can reach up to 120,000 lux, on a cloudy day 1000-30,000, compared to only 40-500 in an average household.
- Make sure to open all curtains in the morning, and switch the lights on
- Supplement with Vitamin D. Up to 50% of the general population may be deficient in Vitamin D, especially during winter, and this is a key vitamin to supplement with if you have SAD. Discuss supplementation with your health professional, and get your Vitamin D levels tested if possible.
- Make sure you get plenty of exercise. One of the reasons we get SAD in winter is because sunlight helps us produce the happy chemical, serotonin, but exercise can help us get more serotonin too. If possible do your exercise, whether it be walking, running, or lifting weights, outdoors or in a well-lit area.
- Discuss Light Therapy with your doctor. This has been a light-saver (I mean life saver!) for me. Most clinical light therapy has to be 10,000lux, and is a certain type of light simulating sunlight. You normally use it in the morning, slowly at first, say 15 minutes, and then build up to 30-60 minutes. Light Therapy is a highly effective treatment for SAD, but you should definitely discuss this with your doctor first, especially if you are on any medication, as Light Therapy can sometimes interfere with the action of your existing medication.
Personally speaking, Light Therapy has been amazing for me. I noticed within day one an immediate change in my mood and alertness, and when used in the morning I feel so much more awake and happy to get on with my day. I also noticed improved sleep within the first week of using. On one day when I couldn’t use it due to a power cut but I had to leave early for work, I got ready by torchlight and felt very groggy, sleepy, and was also forgetful.
So if you’re suffering from the ADHD and SAD combo, I imagine that your life becomes even more difficult during the winter months. So you’ve already got a lot on your plate, but I hope that by bringing SAD to your attention, that if you get that sorted – which I believe you can by taking the right actions – well, I’m pretty confident that you’ll get some relief and hopefully, like me, be able to beat the winter blues.