How to beat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also known as winter depression or winter blues, is thought to affect 1 in 15 people in the UK. Gosia Bowling, Prevention Lead at Nuffield Health explains the symptoms and how to deal with them.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

SAD is characterised by a low mood you can’t shake off during the winter months. It can affect your emotional wellbeing so much that you lose interest in things you usually enjoy.

Different people can experience winter blues at different places on the spectrum – some may feel a bit down, while others may even have to take time off work. If you tend to have a low mood in the winter, read on for some helpful advice to beat SAD.

What causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?

SAD can be triggered by the lack of sunlight in winter. This affects levels of hormones (melatonin and serotonin) in the part of the brain that controls mood, sleep and appetite – in other words, our circadian rhythms.

What are the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Similar to depression, symptoms of SAD include some, but not necessarily all, of the following:

  • Persistent low mood
  • Loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness
  • Lethargy (lacking in energy) and feeling sleepy during the day
  • Sleeping for longer than normal and finding it hard to get up in the morning
  • Craving carbohydrates and gaining weight

How to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder

  • Go outside: Getting exposure to natural light is an easy way to boost your melatonin and serotonin levels.
  • Get a light therapy lamp: Artificial light is more convenient for those dark mornings and light therapy is now included as part of the NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) guidelines.
  • Stay connected: You may want to hide away during darker days, but meeting and keeping in touch with friends and family is a great way to lift your mood.
  • Exercise regularly: Exercise releases endorphins, making you feel more positive, so it’s a great way to beat the winter blues. Even going for a walk at lunchtime every day can help.

Can my diet impact my mood?

Eating a balanced diet can help to stabilise your mood. Choose foods that release energy slowly and will help to keep your sugar levels steady. Slow-release energy foods include non-starchy vegetables (eg cauliflower, broccoli & spinach) brown rice, oats, cereals, nuts and seeds.

Be aware of carb cravings as these may cause weight gain, which may lower your mood further. Links have been made between a lack of vitamin D and depression, so try and eat foods that are rich in vitamin D, such as eggs and fatty fish (salmon, tuna, sardines, rainbow trout).

How CBT can help with SAD

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) helps people change the way they feel and act by shifting the way in which they perceive a situation, so it can help identify, challenge and change unhelpful cycles brought on by the winter months. For example, if a person with SAD says they ‘hate’ the cold winter, they may often respond by hibernating from the world, meaning they get less exposure to sunlight, social contact, enjoyable activity and exercise all of which can maintain low mood and increase unhelpful thinking such as ‘I have nothing to look forward to’. CBT can help break these vicious cycles associated with SAD.

Can we manage seasonal affective disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder is manageable, there are many things you can try to reduce your symptoms and feel happier and healthier in winter. If you’re experiencing low moods, don’t be afraid to speak to somebody about it – whether that’s your friends, family or a healthcare professional such as your GP.

Last updated Friday 15 November 2019

First published on Friday 8 November 2019