Seasonal affective disorder and the winter blues
When winter comes it often brings the blues. Many of us end up eating our feelings and letting an inch of dust settle on our long-forgotten gym membership cards, wrapping up in our biggest jumpers, and waiting until we can sit outside again.
Feeling sad about the end of summer is a normal reaction, but sometimes the onset of winter can seriously affect our mood. This can be anything from a slightly low feeling to a more serious sadness, including a decreased lack of motivation or enjoyment, and trouble sleeping (or sleeping too much).
Never fear - we’re here to put you on the right track again with a simple guide to the winter blues and seasonal affective disorder.
The winter blues vs. seasonal affective disorder
First of all, it’s important to know that there’s a difference between the winter blues and seasonal affective disorder (otherwise known as SAD). One is more serious than the other, but they both probably come from the same place.
- Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression (sometimes called ‘winter depression’) that occurs in a seasonal pattern. It’s usually triggered in winter and is better during the summer, but some people experience it the other way around.
- The ‘winter blues’, on the other hand, are a general dip in mood and energy that’s noticeable but not problematic. A lot of people experience the winter blues on and off.
Both usually happen during the winter, but SAD is a condition that might require medical treatment or therapy. If you think you have SAD, speak to your GP - they’re the best person to help. If, on the other hand, you just feel a little low, there are some things you can do to help yourself get through those long winter days, which we’ll explore below.
Causes of seasonal affective disorder and the winter blues
Nobody entirely understands why people suffer from seasonal affective disorder or the winter blues, but it’s probably because we get less sunlight during autumn and winter - and as we know, light can have a big effect on our mood.
In a nutshell:
- When we get less sunlight our hypothalamus produces less melatonin, the chemical that makes you sleepy. Lack of sleep can then lead to tiredness, irritability, and a lower mood.
- As our bodies react to light as a way of maintaining our circadian rhythms, getting less light can interrupt our body clocks, making it harder to sleep or wake up.
- It’s also believed that the hormone serotonin, which affects mood, might be suppressed by a lack of sunlight, leading to symptoms of depression.
What are the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder/the winter blues?
Everyone experiences SAD and the winter blues differently, but these are some of the most common things to look out for:
- Lower interest in the activities you usually enjoy
- Being irritable or snappy
- Finding it harder to concentrate at work, or forgetting things
- Feeling tired during the day and struggling to get up in the morning
- Wanting to eat more carbohydrates and potentially gaining weight
- Feeling a general low mood that’s hard to shake
- Experiencing other negative emotions like guilt and fear, without an obvious cause.
If you experience some of these symptoms and they occur when the season changes, you might be suffering from seasonal affective disorder or the winter blues. Remember, if you’re concerned, always ask your GP for help.
How can I help beat the winter blues?
As we’ve mentioned, a bad case of SAD will need professional help, but in the meantime - or if you have a case of the winter blues - there are some things you can do to help.
1. Beat the blues with exercise
A wise woman once said; “Exercise gives you endorphins, endorphins make you happy.” And she was right.
Endorphins are the feel-good hormone, and as the seasons change and the weather starts to bite, they are exactly what you need.
If you can’t bear the thought of going to the gym after work, opt for something a little calmer: try walking part (or all) of the way home. Put in those headphones, crank up the happy beats and drink in the world around you. Not only will your body be zipping with endorphins but you’ll also be giving yourself some time to decompress – which is essential if you live a busy life.
If you’re a parent who needs to rush home to sort out your children, try some simple floor exercises and stretches once you’ve put them down for the night. You need time for you too.
2. Get more sunlight
According to researchers at the Royal College of Psychologists, to help beat the winter blues we should be maximising exposure to natural light from the moment of waking up. You could try sleeping with open curtains and moving your bed to the window to absorb the early morning sunshine or alternatively, make sure you’re using your lunch break to get out into natural light. Points for effort if it’s raining!
If having your weekday fix is hard, make sure you’re getting out and about at the weekend. For city dwellers, take a light seeking adventure into nearby countryside or parks and immerse yourself in nature.
There’s also nothing like filling your lungs with fresh air to improve your mood.
3. Eat good food
A fantastic and easy way to combat the winter blues is with your diet and when it comes to mood altering ingredients, the one you won’t find on the back of the packet is the one you need: L-tryptophan.
L-tryptophan is an essential amino acid which is used by your body to produce niacin, a vitamin vital to your skin, nerves and digestion and serotonin, your very own mood stabiliser.
Aside from improving your mood, L-tryptophan is also incredibly important to your sleep-wake cycle. If you want to wake up after a refreshing night’s sleep and ready to tackle the day, start incorporating the following foods into your diet: nuts, seeds, red meat, eggs, turkey, fish, lentils, oats and beans. In fact, we have some great recipes for those ingredients here.
4. Embrace good sleep hygiene
Research has linked less sunlight in winter to the disruption of our circadian rhythm (our 24-hour body clock). The abrupt change in our circadian rhythm in turn throws off our sleeping pattern which can leave us feeling over-tired, craving comfort food and blue. Fortunately, there is a way to help combat this!
We’re not just sleep experts, we’re sleep enthusiasts and advocate and we know what good it does for the mind and the body. Arm yourself with a healthy sleep routine by establishing sleep and wake times that allow you to get all the rest you need. Seven to nine hours is the optimal amount for waking feeling refreshed and ready for the day - a great way to feel better during winter.
5. Be kind to yourself
We’ll keep this section short and sweet: be kind to yourself.
These coming months are not a time to punish yourself for eating comfort food or missing gym appointments. It’s important for us to stay healthy as it can have a big effect on our mood, but there’s no point beating yourself up for not being perfect. Stay warm and happy, and make sure you’re leaving time for yourself.
Whilst the winter blues affect most of us to some degree, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can be a more dilapidating offset of these darker, longer nights. SAD fully recognised by health professionals and if you are particularly struggling with your mental and physical wellbeing during the winter months we encourage you to visit your GP to get any support you may need.