Do you dread the winter months? Do you feel tired and depressed when the clocks go back and the nights start drawing in? If you also have mood swings, sleep problems, carbohydrate cravings, headaches, irritability, weight gain or feel you have little interest in life, you may be one of the estimated 2 million people in the UK who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or the less-severe form, often referred to as the winter blues.
Nobody really knows what causes SAD or the winter blues. But some experts believe SAD – described by the NHS as a type of depression that has a seasonal pattern – is caused by fewer hours of sunlight during the winter months that deplete your body’s levels of serotonin – often called the ‘feel-good’ chemical – which affects your mood.
Low light levels are thought to affect the production of a brain chemical called melatonin, which can disrupt the body’s internal clock (or circadian rhythm). The pineal gland produces more melatonin during the hours of darkness, making you feel sleepy. But some people who have SAD are thought to produce more melatonin than usual, making them feel tired throughout the day.
If you’re diagnosed with SAD, your GP may recommend treatment with antidepressants called selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Talking therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, are also often recommended.
But if you have milder symptoms, the wellbeing charity CABA have some tips you can try to protect yourself against the winter slump:
See the light
Getting outdoors on a bright winter day may help relieve the symptoms of SAD and the winter blues. Try getting out of your home or office at some point during the day for around 20 minutes or longer. And if you can’t get outside, try sitting near a window whenever possible to soak up some natural light.
Many people with SAD or the winter blues also respond to light therapy, which involves sitting in front of a special light therapy lamp – or light box – at home. These lamps produce very bright light, and using one – often during the morning – is thought to help boost serotonin production while suppressing your melatonin levels.
If you decide to buy a light box, make sure it has been made by a fully certified manufacturer and is designed for treating SAD.
Physical activity is widely thought to be an effective way to boost your mood, and there’s a solid body of evidence that suggests exercise may help to alleviate depression. Exercising outdoors, especially when it’s sunny, may have an even stronger effect on SAD/winter blues symptoms.
You don’t have to turn into a fitness fanatic. Just being more active in your day-to-day life can have a huge benefit on the way you feel, especially during the winter. For instance, try taking a walk in the park instead of lunching at your desk, or walk to the shops instead of taking the bus.
Pack your bags
Most people take a holiday during the summer, but for anyone who suffers from SAD or the winter blues it might be worth going away in the winter instead. Many people affected by SAD say their symptoms are at their worst during January and February, so it’s a good idea to take advantage of the cheap off-peak package holidays and get some winter sun after Christmas.
Eat mood-boosting foods
Many experts believe what you eat can make a huge difference to your mood, especially during the winter, particularly foods that contain the amino acid tryptophan, which converts into serotonin in the brain. Foods rich in tryptophan include bananas, turkey, chicken, fish, cheese, eggs, milk, nuts, avocados and pulses.
Many nutrition experts also recommend eating carbohydrate snacks throughout the day because carbohydrates help with the tryptophan-to-serotonin conversion in the brain. Try to choose complex carbohydrates such as brown rice, wholemeal bread and wholemeal pasta. These release glucose into your bloodstream more slowly than processed carbohydrates such as white bread and sugary foods, which may help keep your blood sugar levels stable.
Some also believe omega-3 fatty acids may enhance serotonin activity, so eat oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and fresh tuna at least once a week (if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, try adding flaxseeds or chia seeds for an omega-3 boost).
Also try to avoid fluctuations in your blood sugar levels, which can make you crave sweet foods and feel tired and irritable. Always start the day with a good breakfast and try not to let yourself get too hungry: have smaller meals with healthy snacks in between, and avoid anything sugary.
Some SAD sufferers say their symptoms improve when they keep warm, so make sure your home and workplace are properly heated and wrap up well when you go outdoors. If you find it difficult to stay warm in bed, take a hot water bottle with you or invest in an electric blanket (never use both at the same time and always follow the safety instructions that come with your electric blanket).
Winter has only just begun, and the shorter days may make you feel less able to cope with the symptoms of depression or winter blues. It can also be difficult to tell if you or your loved one is experiencing SAD, so the wellbeing charity CABA has tips available on spotting signs of depression and understanding its effects.