Winter blues: 11 ways to deal with seasonal affective disorder, according to experts

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  • For many of us, winter is a time when our mood suffers from the short, dark days and lack of sunlight. Known as the winter blues, if you start to feel so down it affects your work and relationships you may have seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This is a very real condition and can have a big impact on mental health.

    If this sounds like you, rest assured you’re not alone.  If you want to know what causes it, what the symptoms are, and natural ways to deal with your feelings of anxiety, as well as lethargy, anxiety and sadness.

    What causes winter blues?

    We asked consultant psychiatrist Dr Natasha Bijlani, who’s based at the Priory’s Roehampton Hospital in south-west London, and Dr Shungu Hilda M’gadzah, director and lead consultant psychologist at Inclusion Psychologists, about what causes the winter blues and how it can lead to seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

    It’s well recognised that SAD may be related to changes in the amount of daylight during autumn and winter months, which can affect the levels of serotonin and melatonin in the brain that influence mood,” says Dr Bijlani.

    “During the night, the brain releases melatonin which contributes to making us feel drowsy and induces sleep. At daybreak, the effect of bright light, coupled with the natural rhythms of the brain, suppresses melatonin. In those susceptible to SAD, not being exposed to sufficient light – on dull winter days – can lead to the development of the symptoms of SAD,” she explains.

    So, when you go from feeling fed up with the weather to feeling depressed on a regular basis it’s likely there are physiological changes occurring in your brain. “SAD is a recognised mental disorder and classified as such,” says Dr M’gadzah. “Many people have SAD – especially the 18-30 age group. Women are four times more likely to get it than men and children can get it, too,” she adds.

    Figures vary but “SAD may affect up to 9% of the British population to some degree,” says Dr Bijlani. “Millions may suffer and many may not know they have the condition,” she says. “It’s more common in those living further north, where there are shorter daylight hours in the winter. For example, in the US, people living in Alaska or New England may be more likely to develop SAD than people living in Florida,” she explains.

    While these statistics sound alarming most cases are mild. “For many, it really isn’t anything to worry about,” adds Dr M’gadzah. “A few changes and adjustments to your daily routine can make all the difference,” she says.

    Woman in a snow storm and dealing with winter blues

    Life can feel like an uphill struggle when you have SAD. (Credit: Getty)

    Winter blues: symptoms of seasonal affective disorder

    If you’re wondering what the symptoms are, they’re similar to other mental health conditions, such as depression. The key difference is that SAD occurs largely in winter. “Although this is not always the case, SAD is characterised by its ability to affect people during the colder and darker months, and by the end of spring people with SAD tend to feel better,” says Dr Naomi Newman-Beinart, a nutritionist and chartered psychologist specialising in health.

    “Recognising the difference between the winter blues and SAD is important so the patient is offered the most appropriate treatment,” says Dr Bijlani. Symptoms of SAD occur at the same time every year – usually during the autumn and winter months – and include:

    • Feeling low and depressed
    • Feeling excessively tired during the day and needing to sleep for longer
    • Having difficulty waking up in the morning despite having more sleep
    • Social withdrawal and loss of pleasure and interests
    • Loss of libido
    • Feelings of anxiety, as well as irritability, tension and stress and anxiety
    • Carbohydrate cravings, waking up in the night to eat, and weight gain
    • Feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness
    Woman by a window dealing with the winter blues

    Get as much light as possible during winter. (Credit: Getty)

    11 natural ways to deal with winter blues

    If your winter blues persist and you’re feeling down on a regular basis, try these natural ways to deal with your low mood.

    1. Use a light box

    Studies have shown that – especially for those of us living in the northern hemisphere – replacing the light we are deprived of in winter can have a positive effect on seasonal affective disorder. This is done by using a special light box such as a Lumie SAD Light, which provides a bright light of 10,000 lux at 16 cm. Research shows this improves well-being (to put this into perspective, even the brightest office only provides around 500 lux, says Lumie).

    Dr Bijlani told us, “People with SAD sometimes need four hours a day of special bright light at 10 times the intensity of ordinary lighting. It’s a simple treatment. When it’s used regularly throughout the winter months it can take away the worst of the feelings.”

    Scientists largely believe that a light box works by having a positive effect on the circadian rhythm (our sleep-wake cycle). ‘The light emitted from a SAD light box can help to regulate your natural circadian rhythm, thus helping to improve energy and mood,” says Dr Newman-Beinart. If you’re prone to the winter blues, however, don’t wait until you’re feeling down. “I suggest starting to use the light box in autumn as a prevention and to continue until spring,” she says.

    Although light therapy is natural it can cause side effects, such as eye strain, headaches and insomnia, so check with a health professional before you try one. Guidance for buying light boxes can be found on the SADA website.

    Illustrated image of women talking about seasonal affective disorder

    Talking to a loved one or having therapy can really help. (Credit: Getty)

    2. Talk about your feelings

    If you’re feeling low, your first step is to realise that you’re not a burden to others. Remember, a problem shared is a problem halved.

    “Open up to someone you trust about how you’re feeling,” says Liz Joy Oakley, a yoga instructor and head of wellness at MoreYoga. “Sharing what you’re experiencing can help take the weight off your shoulders and help you to get the support that you need.”

    In fact, talking may be a better cure than light therapy. A 2015 study found that, in the long-term, cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) was even more effective at treating seasonal affective disorder than using the light method – so don’t be afraid to reach out.

    “Psychological treatment focusing around cognitive behaviour therapy – a talking therapy – can be helpful,” says Dr Bijlani. “Priory Connect is an online video therapy which can be accessed from home.”

    Alternatively, you can go through your GP (though you may have a wait on your hands) or find a local therapist.

    Illustrated picture of a women walking her dog in the winter

    For people with SAD, nature is your friend. (Credit: Getty)

    3. Step into the light

    If you’re prone to the winter blues, daylight can significantly improve your mood.

    Even on cloudy days it’s worth your while to take a walk outside and get some fresh air. Try to take a walk around midday, when the sun is at its strongest.

    You can also take advantage at work and at home. “For some people with mild symptoms, these can be alleviated by working in more brightly-lit areas. And keep blinds wide open during the day,” says Dr Bijlani.

    4. Embrace the outdoors

    There has been a lot of press in recent years about the power of nature. From gardening, to growing your own vegetables, to forest bathing, nature has the power to heal.

    One way is to practise a Scandinavian way of living called ‘friluftsliv’. Translated as ‘open air living’, friluftsliv can make a huge difference to your mental health all year round.

    “Countless studies have shown that engaging in outdoor activities during the winter months is 99.9% effective in reducing the symptoms of SAD,” says Oliver Luke Delori, author of The Nordic Art of Friluftsliv: Reconnect with Nature.

    Why not go for a walk, climb a mountain (and slide back down) or simply put on your boots and jump in a puddle? Give yourself a breath of fresh air by gazing up at the stars or singing in the rain. I promise you will forget about your problems for a while and feel much better about your life,” he says.

    Woman taking supplements to cope with winter blues

    Supplements can be very useful in treating SAD but check with your doctor first. (Credit: Getty)

    5. Take certain supplements

    “Unlike real sunlight, a lightbox will not give you vitamin D, so I highly recommend that everyone takes a high-quality multivitamin and mineral complex including vitamin D throughout winter,” says Dr Newman-Beinart (there are numerous studies, suggesting that a vitamin D deficiency is linked to depression). “I love Evity multivitamins as they are affordable and include quality, science-based nutrients.”

    “Even with sun exposure, in the UK sunlight doesn’t contain enough UVB radiation during October-early March for our skin to make vitamin D,” says nutritionist Alexandra Emerson-White, a resident experts at Healthy Yeti. A daily supplement containing vitamin D can make up for this.

    As well as a good quality vitamin D supplement consider taking a combination of supporting vitamins and calming herbs. Nourished offer the Inner Peace Stack (from £29.99 a month), a multi-coloured gummy that contains a range of micronutrients and superfoods to help improve mood, energy and sleep, and provide relief from anxiety.

    There’s also some encouraging research that indicates taking a melatonin supplement can ease symptoms. One 2006 study found that a melatonin supplement relieved the symptoms of the winter blues. The theory is that a low dose can shift the circadian rhythm of sufferers and effectively reset it. However, it’s only available on prescription in the UK as it can have unwanted side effects and interact with other medications.

    You could also try 5-HTP. “This is an amino acid produced by the body from the essential amino acid L-tryptophan,” says Jenya Di Pierro, a herbal medicine practitioner and founder of the Cloud Twelve wellness club.

    “It’s required for synthesis and conversion into serotonin, thus exerting an anti-depressant effect and contributing to its importance in seasonal depression.” Solgar is a reputable brand (AMAZON | £21.11 for 90 capsules).

    Jenya also recommends the herb rhodiola. “It’s a pick-me-up adaptogen which has been used for centuries to reduce lethargy, enhance alertness, improve memory and depressed mental states,” she says. “A much better alternative to caffeine, rhodiola improves mental and alertness without the subsequent drop in energy levels. And by supporting adrenal function, rhodiola stabilises energy production over time,” she explains.

    We recommend: Rhodiola Stress Relief –  HOLLAND & BARRET| £13.99 for 30 tablets

    As with all supplements, check with your GP before trying these recommendations. This is because they may interact with other drugs you’re taking.

    Illustrated picture of a woman cooking healthy food

    Getting the right nutrients from your diet will boost mood. (Credit: Getty)

    6. Eat a healthy diet

    A healthy, balanced diet is important at the best of times. But it’s even more integral to your wellbeing if you’re suffering from seasonal affective disorder. As well as consuming plenty of fresh fruit, veg and protein and giving up alcohol, fast and processed food, fizzy drinks and quitting sugar, you need a diet that provides vitamins, minerals and healthy fats.

    “Supplements alone cannot prevent seasonal affective disorder,” says Alexandra.”However, getting an optimal intake of nutrients such as vitamins B & D, and omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) may help reduce symptoms. These nutrient deficiencies are associated with mood disorders.”

    Get your fill of omega-3 by eating fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, tuna and trout. Or eat nuts and seeds such as walnuts, chia and flaxseeds.

    Green leafy veg also contain some omega-3 and you can also buy eggs fortified with this fatty acid. If you’re a veggie or vegan and you’re concerned about your omega-3 intake you can take an omega-3 supplement made from algae, such as Healthy Yeti’s, £13.58.

    7. Don’t live in isolation

    You may feel like going back to bed or not answering those texts that keep pinging on your mobile. But keeping in touch with your loved ones is a big part of staying well.

    “If we’ve learnt anything from lockdown it’s the importance of connection and the negative impact isolation can have on our health,” says Liz. So schedule a phone call and explain that you’re feeling a bit wobbly. Or go for a coffee or a walk with a friend, even if you don’t feel up to it.

    If you can’t meet in person do what most of us have been doing since the pandemic. “If close contact is not an option, maintain virtual or socially distanced connections,” recommends Katrin Schlee, a personal trainer for Gympass.

    Illustrated picture of a woman struggling to get out of bed

    Sleep is so important to good mental health. (Credit: Getty)

    8. Get your sleep in order

    Being excessively sleepy during the day, struggling to get up in the morning, and sleeping longer than you usually do are symptoms of depression and SAD. Even if you don’t suffer from these conditions, practising good sleep hygiene is an essential part of keeping the winter blues at bay.

    “It’s recommended that adults from the age of 18-64 need 7-9 hours sleep and 65+ need 7-8 hours,” says Liz. “Getting too much or a lack of sleep can negatively impact your mental and physical health so it’s important to make sure you are sticking to a healthy sleeping pattern when the days are shorter and nights are longer.”

    There’s also some evidence to show that getting up an hour earlier than you usually do can cut a person’s risk of major depression by up to 23%. This may be partly down to genetics (the lark vs the night owl theory). But it may also be that early risers have more exposure to light.

    If you want to sleep well follow this advice: keep your days bright and your nights dark. “Be consistent with your times for going to bed and getting up,” says Katrin. “And turn your phone off an hour before you intend to turn the lights out.”

    9. Invest in some CBD oil

    Sales of CBD oil have exploded in recent years – the UK CBD market is now only second to the US market with sales doubling during the pandemic as people turn to more natural methods to manage stress or low mood.

    “Another natural solution to support SAD symptoms could come from CBD oil,” says Dr Newman-Beinart. “This wonder oil has recently made it to the forefront of popular wellness. It can help with anxiety, stress and poor sleep, some of which you may be feeling as part of SAD. I-cann Relax CBD oil (£27.50) is made here in the UK and is vegan-friendly and cruelty-free. It really helps to calm the mind and promote a sense of wellbeing,” she says.

    Illustrated picture of a woman doing yoga

    Relax your body and mind with yoga. (Credit: Getty)

    10. Do yoga

    While longer nights coupled with a low mood can also affect our energy levels and make us feel lethargic, yoga will not only help your body but your mind, says Liz.

    “A quick remedy is movement and yoga has so many benefits mentally and physically. It’s a natural way to increase serotonin production and support your nervous system,” she says.

    If you can’t face a class, try an online class from the comfort of your own home. You can try one for free at MoreYogaWellnessTV.

    11. Go for regular exercise

    You don’t have to spend hours at the gym or do gruelling workouts to lift your mood. Even vigorous, HITT workouts and short bursts of cardio (such as cycling or running up the stairs) can make a difference – as can a short run. Recent research from Japan indicates that even a 10 minute run of moderate-intensity can improve mood and cognitive function.

    “Exercising produces endorphins in the brain, which stimulate feelings of happiness. Take a walk at lunchtime, play a sport or be active in a way you enjoy,” advises Dr Bijlani.

    Illustrated image of a woman talking to a doctor

    Always see a doctor if you’re struggling. (Credit: Getty)

    When to see a doctor

    If you find that the natural ways we’ve listed are helping, then you may have your winter blues under control. But if nothing seems to improve your state of mind, it’s time to see a doctor.

    “There are several ways to treat SAD. If you think you have SAD, it’s important to speak to your GP and find a treatment that’s right for you,” says Dr Newman-Beinart. ‘You’re likely to be told to get as much natural daylight as possible, or to try talking therapies.’ However, if those remedies don’t help medication is available.

    Further treatments for seasonal affective disorder

    Aside from moving to a sunny country for the winter months – which isn’t possible for most of us – you can try medicine. These include anti-depressants, such as SSRIs, or a drug called Bupropion.

    According to Sad UK, Bupropion – also known by its trade name Wellbutrin – is “a medication that increases dopamine in the body. Dopamine is the pleasure and calming neurotransmitter that our body naturally produces. Some people cannot tolerate SSRIs and do better with Wellbutrin. Wellbutrin can boost energy levels and aid concentration – problems experienced by SAD sufferers.”

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