This may be the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, but for many people the short, dark days mean the start of bad moods, physical fatigue and carbohydrate cravings. Luckily, there's a simple, practical method that can help to banish the body blues, says Linda Watson-Brown

For Teresa Donnelly, this time of year brings problems. As soon as the clocks go back, the 39-year-old civil servant from Edinburgh starts to feel down. "It's been happening for a few years now," she admits. "But recently, I've noticed changes. When I was little, I always recognised that my mum and one of my aunts seemed to change character once the dark days and darker nights set in. They always said they needed the sun, and I think we're all aware of light deprivation a bit more now. However, since last year, I think that has changed for me. It's not just a matter of wishing it was spring: there have been times when I've thought I was going mad."

Now a new book has been published that addresses many of the character changes Donnelly identified. When Your Body Gets the Blues, by Marie-Annette Brown and Jo Robinson, describes itself as a "clinically proven programme for women who feel tired and stressed and eat too much". The only cynicism such a claim may engender arises from the question - are there any of us who aren't covered by that description?

"Millions of women just don't feel their best and don't know why," the authors say. "They're not really depressed, but they're not really happy either. They suffer from lots of symptoms without necessarily knowing why. There are many questions we ask of them in this book, such as: do you eat too much? Is sex no longer enjoyable? Do you feel tired all the time? Are you anxious or down? There are so many women who feel that this describes them exactly, and it's a relief when they realise that it's actually quite common."

Donnelly agrees. "I've been getting really forgetful - and convincing myself that it's early-onset Alzheimer's. I've been starting a new diet every week and wrecking it by dinnertime on Monday. I've been ratty because I'm not sexually satisfied, but I tell my husband that I'm too tired or can't be bothered any time he comes near me. I thought I was going mad."

It's a syndrome without a name, say Brown and Robinson - until now. "Your body has the blues, basically. Women say they feel tired and sluggish all the time. They don't have the energy to be patient with their kids, or attentive with their partners. They know exercise would help, but they have no motivation. They can't sleep at night, and long for bed during the day. They act as if they're on a diet until evening, and then pig out on carbohydrates at night. Curiously, it can all come and go. For days at a time, they can be sharp, then their thinking goes fuzzy or scattered. They get irritated by little things, and blow them all out of proportion."

It all sounds depressingly familiar. But depression itself isn't necessarily part of the syndrome. Brown and Robinson emphasise that serious mood-problems may appear to be part of the deal, but by taking their advice, the importance of this aspect can be eliminated. "Women who have this syndrome don't have big mental-health problems. Unlike women with clinical depression, they do not feel sad or tearful all the time. They don't feel hopeless or think that the world would be a better place without them. When something good happens, they feel genuinely happy. Nonetheless, they are distressed. Their symptoms interfere with their relationships, frustrate them, and rob them of full enjoyment. It's as though their bodies were depressed, not their minds. It's the body blues."

The body blues seem to go hand in hand with being female. The fact that women are prone to having a particular cluster of symptoms has been known for a while. In the 19th century, what is now being called the body blues was more likely to be defined as neuroses, or nervous depression - "women's problems". The Victorians blamed this disorder on a woman's fragile constitution and her childlike nature, or even on a wilful deviation from "traditional" femininity.

Their "cures" were somewhat different to today's. Women would be sent to dark bedrooms for weeks on end. Company would be banned, as would anything that might stimulate the mind. Leeches and laudanum were the preferred solutions, replaced nowadays with Prozac and self-help books.

Prozac, introduced in the late 1980s, was designed to boost the activity of serotonin, the brain's main feel-good chemical. It was so effective, and seemingly so well-tolerated, that it began to be used for other conditions, including sleep problems, fatigue, bulimia, PMS and chronic pain syndrome. Along with other, similar drugs, it seemed to help all of these apparently unrelated problems, which were more common in women than men. The question was raised as to whether this meant that women were more likely to be deficient in serotonin.

"It now appears that the answer to that question is 'yes'," Brown and Robinson believe. "Men and women can have the same amount of serotonin in their brains, but men make better use of it. It's even more important to note that serotonin activity ebbs and flows with a woman's production of oestrogen. More oestrogen means more serotonin, and vice versa. Low oestrogen plus low serotonin equals the body blues."

Low oestrogen can occur at many times during a woman's life: before menstruation, after childbirth, while breastfeeding, during perimenopause, after menopause. And, perhaps most importantly for thirtysomethings, during periods of prolonged stress. Men produce serotonin - nature's anti-depressant - much more rapidly than women. So, hampered with slow production, shoddy processing, biological conditions and stressful lives, the body blues kick in.

What Brown and Robinson are now advocating is a programme that doesn't rely on drugs to replace this serotonin. They claim there is no medication on the market that is a fully comprehensive solution to the body blues. Drugs can help some symptoms, but make others worse. For example, a drug that makes a woman feel happier and more energetic can interfere with her ability to have orgasms. A medication that tames her appetite can make her jittery and unable to sleep.

So, what can women do? The authors have devised the Levity (Light, Exercise and Vitamin Intervention) project to tackle this syndrome. "We wanted to find a drug-free solution that would help all women sufferers, but which would also be cheap and accessible. What we came up with has three parts. Firstly, there is light. As a society, we've moved indoors. Light enhances our mood, but most of us are living a light-deprived existence. We are denying ourselves the effect of bright light, and yet light deprivation depresses mood more than PMS. One study found that the more time their volunteers spent inside, the more tired, depressed and anxious they felt, and the more they craved carbohydrates. In addition to this, we found that light had a stronger influence on women's mood than their menstrual cycle. You need to get outside, let good light into your life.

"The second stage is to walk briskly five times a week. Don't jog: we found that didn't have as good an effect. But walking quickly, even in the rain, really does boost serotonin levels. Finally, there is a combination of six vitamins you can take which are inexpensive and easily accessible. All of these really do help, and the best thing is that there are no drugs and women can feel empowered by taking control of lives they thought were slipping away."

'When Your Body Gets the Blues' by Marie-Annette Brown and Jo Robinson is published by Rodale (£10.99)

THE BLUES - AND HOW TO BEAT THEM

Do you suffer from many of the following symptoms at this time of year? If so, you may be susceptible to the seasonal body blues:

* Feeling tired or sluggish.

* Having difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep.

* Eating more than you would like, especially in the second half of the day.

* Your thinking often seems fuzzy or unfocused.

* Little interest in sex.

* Feeling tense or anxious.

* Finding it difficult to cope with stress.

* Feeling drowsy or sleepy in the afternoons.

* Craving chocolates, sweets or carbohydrates.

* Thinking about death in general, your own mortality, or losing others.

* Eating whenever you feel tired, irritable, anxious or sad, rather than hungry.

* Feeling the urge to buy things to boost your mood.

* Feeling irritable or angry for no good reason.

* Making "verbal slips", having difficulty recalling familiar names, or choosing the right word.

* Having problems making decisions.

* Snacking after dinner.

What can you do?

These are the three basic elements of the Levity programme:

* Walk briskly (but don't jog) for 20 minutes a day, five times a week.

* Create a more natural lighting environment.

* Take six common vitamins daily: 50 milligrams vitamin B1; 50mg vitamin B2; 50mg vitamin B6; 400 micrograms folic acid; 400 IU vitamin D; 200 micrograms selenium.

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