Today was a bright, blue-skied, sunny day for the first time in what feels like months. Though still bitterly cold, spirits seem to be lifted by the sunshine. On the beach today it almost felt as if people were coming out of hibernation. I think everybody feels happier in brighter weather and, for many, the Winter months and lack of sunshine cause real health issues. Seasonal Affective Disorder, since 1984, has been a recognised medical condition that is thought to affect two million people in the UK and Ireland. When you think about how much natural light the average British worker sees, it is perhaps little wonder that so many are affected by SAD. Historically we only ever worked outdoors; now less than 10% of the population work outdoors in natural light. In the Winter months it is not uncommon for the average British worker to be exposed to no natural light at all in the course of a working day. Working hours are longer than they used to be and many work night shifts. Hectic lifestyles and darker days have had a dramatic effect on our Circadian rhythms which regulate mood, sleep, wake, appetite, digestion and energy.
The main symptoms of SAD are feeling tired, moody and sluggish, anxious, pessimistic and even depressed. There are many treatments including light therapy, CBT and even anti-depressants. Nothing can really beat the effects of natural sunlight though; it is extremely rare to find people suffering with SAD living within 30 degress of the equator, where daylight hours are long and extremely bright. People who have lived near the tropics for part of their life and then emigrated to the UK are more susceptible to SAD symptoms.
Another problem with lack of sunshine is that it causes a deficiency of Vitamin D. In the UK for at least three months of the year we are all at risk of not getting enough Vitamin D as the body makes it most efficiently from its exposure to sunshine. Half of the UK’s white population and up to 90% of the black and Asian people in this country are affected by a lack of Vitamin D. A big part of the problem is that we have come to see sun as the enemy and are constantly being advised to cover up and smother ourselves and our children with sunscreen or sunblock. Also, children play inside much more than they did twenty years ago. As a consequence, even during the Summer, we are not being exposed to enough sunshine to manufacture sufficient supplies of Vitamin D. There has been a four-fold increase in admissions to hospital of children with rickets in the last fifteen years, a disease which was widely thought to have been eradicated in modern times. A Vitamin D injection is routinely offered in other European countries at the start of the Winter months and many doctors here are beginning to see that a Vitamin D supplement is necessary for certain vulnerable groups. There are many good reasons to get out in the sun, not least because it is becoming an increaingly rare occurrence.