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, Mental Health National Lead at Nuffield Health explains the symptoms and how to deal with them.

As we approach the winter months, the colder weather and darker mornings and evenings can have an impact on our mood.

Despite the fact that millions of people report experiencing winter-related low mood, there are many misconceptions about this issue, possibly due to the fact that symptoms can vary so much from person to person.

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. Reduced sunlight can affect levels of hormones (melatonin and serotonin) in the part of the brain that controls mood, sleep and appetite – in other words, your circadian rhythms or body clock. 

As you would expect, SAD occurs more commonly in people living in northern latitudes, where the days are shorter in winter. Also, women appear to be more affected by SAD than men.

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

There are many things you can try to reduce your symptoms and feel happier and healthier.

1. Go outside

Getting exposure to natural light is an easy way to boost your mood. Light encourages your brain to reduce the production of melatonin (the hormone that makes you sleeps) and increase the production of serotonin (the hormone that affects your mood).

Even a brief lunchtime walk in the sun can be beneficial. You can also make your work and home environments as light and airy as possible, and sit near windows when you're indoors.

2. Get a light therapy lamp

Artificial light is convenient for those dark mornings and light therapy is now included as part of the NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) guidelines. Although the research in this area is mixed, some people find that light therapy can help improve their mood considerably. 

Light therapy involves sitting by a special lamp called a light box, usually for around 30 minutes to an hour each morning. Light boxes come in a variety of designs, including desk lamps and wall-mounted fixtures. They produce a very bright light, which is measured in lux – the higher lux, the brighter the light.

Dawn-simulating alarm clocks, which gradually light up your bedroom as you wake up, may also be useful for some people.

3. Eat well

Eating a balanced diet can help to stabilise your mood. Winter blues can make you crave sugar and carbohydrates, but the energy you get from these is often short-lived and you can end up feeling sluggish.

Instead choose foods that release energy slowly and will help to keep your sugar levels steady. Slow-release energy foods include non-starchy vegetables (e.g. cauliflower, broccoli and spinach) brown rice, oats, cereals, nuts and seeds.

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)

4. Exercise regularly

Physical activity has even more benefits for emotional wellbeing, with research consistently showing how it can help to improve mood. This is because exercise releases endorphins, making you feel more positive.

Exercising outside can also make you feel more connected to your surroundings, and help you gain perspective, particularly when you spend time in nature. Exercising with others also allows you to socialise, further helping to lift your mood – which brings us on to the next point.

5. Stay connected

You may want to hide away during darker days, but this urge to hibernate can lead to spending less time with others and feeling withdrawn. Meeting and keeping in touch with friends and family is key to our wellbeing.

Biologically, isolation is toxic to the human nervous system. Lack of human connection puts our mental and physical health at risk. Having meaningful relationships and being able to give to others can greatly improve our resilience.

Our bodies release feel-good chemicals such as oxytocin and dopamine when we are connected and engaged in positive interactions with others. So it's important to think about how you can maintain these vital connections during the winter months.

6. Get a good night’s sleep

Sleep and mood are closely connected, and getting good quality sleep can help to improve your mood. One of the most effective ways to do this is to develop a regular sleep routine. As adults this is often something we forget, but training ourselves to wake and go to sleep the same time can be helpful, as can creating a relaxing ritual before bed.

Make sure you avoid strenuous physical activity before bed, and try not to go to sleep on a full or empty stomach, as this can interrupt sleep. Consider eating your main meal a few hours before bed, and if you do start to get hungry before bed, then have a small snack.

It's also important to limit caffeine, nicotine and alcohol as these are all stimulants and work to keep you awake. They can also cause fragmented sleep and breaks in your natural sleep cycles. 

Another good tip is to take all electric devices out of the bedroom, as even small amounts of light can affect our sensitive body clocks.

7. Try Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

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 these things 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.

Speak up if you need support

If you’re experiencing low moods during winter, 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 Tuesday 13 December 2022

First published on Friday 8 November 2019