The ‘winter blues’ are a real phenomenon.

That feeling some people suffer as the days grow shorter, the skies darker and temperatures plummet is not just a figment of your imagination.

It even has its own medical term.

Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as ‘SAD’, is a type of depression related to the changing of seasons.

It typically presents during autumn and often extends for the duration of winter before people’s moods begin to lift with the advent of spring.

While much less common, SAD may also present for some in the spring and last throughout the summer.

Causes of SAD

SAD is not fully understood but is believed to be caused by a disruption to a person’s internal body clock or circadian rhythm.

In autumn and winter, it is triggered by the reduction in the number of sunlight hours.

This leads to changes in serotonin and melatonin levels, chemicals in the brain which affect mood and influence sleep patterns.

Symptoms of SAD

Common symptoms of SAD include:

  • changes in appetite or weight, especially overeating and carbohydrate cravings
  • oversleeping
  • low energy levels or fatigue
  • persistent feelings of sadness or depression
  • loss of interest in activities normally enjoyed
  • difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • social withdrawal
  • feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness or guilt

The top three symptoms are particularly common in SAD during autumn and winter or ‘winter blues’.

Risk factors

The leading risk factors for SAD are:

  • people with a family history of SAD
  • low levels of vitamin D
  • living close to the earth’s poles where winter months have greatly reduced daylight hours
  • people suffering bipolar disorder

People with bipolar disorder are particularly susceptible and may suffer manic episodes linked with certain seasons.

They are more vulnerable and likely to suffer bouts of depression in the winter months.

Conversely, the summer months may trigger hypomanic episodes including anxiety, irritability and feelings of euphoria and overconfidence.

Ways to combat SAD

There are a number of ways people suffering SAD can relieve their symptoms and many do not require medical intervention.

Utiliize natural sunlight

Spending time outdoors is one of the best ways to counter SAD.

Take advantage of every daylight hour on offer.

This is especially important in regions where days are much shorter at certain times of the year.

Even in cold weather, natural light offers vitamin D, improves mood and lifts energy levels.

Remain active 

Regular exercise is one of the best ways to improve your mood and relieve symptoms of depression.

Try to builder regular activity into your daily routine.

About 45 minutes of moderate activity daily is recommended.

But if the weather is prohibitive or you are short on time, even a quick walk is helpful.

And walking outdoors is perferable to using an indoor walking machine.

Live a healthy lifestyle

Observing the basics of leading a healthy lifestyle can help fight off the winter blues.

That means:

  • eating a healthy, balanced diet
  • reducing your alcohol intake (no more than 10 standard drinks per week)
  • quitting smoking 
  • reducing your caffeine intake which can worsen symptoms of depression

Social interaction

Remaining connected with friends and family is good for everyone’s mental health.

This is particularly true for anyone suffering from SAD.

Social support can be a great source of comfort and encouragement.

This rings true, even if it is limited to phone or video calls.

Light therapy

Also known as phototherapy, this is the leading form of medical intervention for SAD and one of the most effective treatments.

Importantly, it may be employed from the comfort of your own home.

It involves sitting in front of a light box or lamp of 10,000 lux for around 20 minutes during the first hour after waking up.

The light stimulates chemicals in the brain which otherwise remain dormant in the cooler, darker months.

Psychotherapy and medications

If professional help is recommended, a psychiatrist or psychologist may be considered.

They can offer therapies and prescribe medications such as antidepressants which can help relieve anxiety and improve mood.

Book an appointment

It is important to consider your mental health and wellbeing all year around.

But this is especially true if you detect any feelings of sadness or depression during the change in seasons – usually during the colder months.

Remain vigilant to the threat of SAD.

If you feel you may be suffering the ‘winter blues’ or any other form of depression, see a doctor at once.

If left untreated, these symptoms can become more serious, potentially leading to social issues, work problems, substance abuse and in rare cases, even suicidal thoughts.

At AHA Clinics, doctors are highly skilled and trained in the area of mental health.

They are excellent listeners and always offer a sympathetic ear to all of their patients.

Doctors at AHA will talk to you about ways to alleviate your symptoms and consider whether further medical techniques or interventions are advisable.

Book an appointment here today at either our Seaford Road Day and Night Clinic or our Seaford Meadows Day and Night Clinic.