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SAD vs the Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know About Both

Gina Narramore

Gina Narramore


Health & Wellbeing

Understanding the difference between more common dips in mood and seasonal affective disorder is important. In this article, we explore the tell-tale signs of SAD, as well as useful tips that will help lift your mood in the winter.

With the onset of Autumn, cooler air, wet weather fronts and what feels to be shorter days, it’s normal for many people to feel more melancholy and less inclined to go outside. However, defining the difference between a case of feeling the more common effects of winter and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is trickier than you may believe. And unfortunately, many people suffering from SAD ignore what is a real, treatable illness and put it down to being an inevitable result of the season.

SAD is more than the 'winter blues'

As you may be aware, it can be very easy to dismiss a particularly miserable week or low mood as a case of the ‘winter blues’. But could shrugging it off and expecting it to simply disappear when the sun comes out or a new day starts, actually be hiding a bigger problem?

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a complex depressive illness that has been shown to affect as many as 1 in 3 people in the UK (according to 2014 research by The Weather Channel and YouGov). Moreover, according to this research, women are 40 per cent more likely to experience this condition. 

Simply said, SAD is often triggered by the lack of sunlight that comes with autumn and winter and this causes a change in people’s levels of melatonin and serotonin hormones. These hormones are both produced in the brain and contribute to the functions of mood, sleep and appetite - otherwise known as our circadian rhythms. To disrupt the production of these hormones can result in a number of problems that include depression, lack of energy, a lack of concentration, overeating and consequent weight gain, a loss of libido and sudden mood changes or hypomania (overactivity) in the spring.

It is important that sufferers of SAD have a doctor’s diagnosis before treatment. If you have an inkling that you or a loved one may have it, please make an appointment with a GP or a medical professional.

What does SAD mean for you?

SAD can affect individuals differently with many symptoms disrupting or causing problems with social activities, routines and relationships. For some sufferers of SAD, the effects can become severe and have a drastic impact on their daily routines, causing them to take time off work, cancel regular appointments or avoid going outside at all.

If you’re a person who tends to stay inside because of joint or muscular problems that are exaggerated by winter, you are at a particular risk of being affected by SAD as getting sunlight will ultimately be more difficult. 

If you at all feel that you’re finding it difficult to do your usual activities, are no longer enjoying them and may struggle to get out of bed then you should speak to a medical professional or doctor. Other common effects of seasonal affective disorder include a strongly increased desire to eat (carbohydrates, sweet treats and fatty comfort foods are especially common for those with SAD), sleep and a loss of a sense of time. A big indicator of whether you have SAD is also when it seems to affect you. For example, if you tend to only be affected by the above symptoms in the autumn and winter, it is likely to be because of SAD. 

What to do if you think you have SAD

Firstly, it’s hugely important to make an appointment with a doctor or health care professional to find out whether you have seasonal affective disorder. Having an open conversation about the way that you are feeling during these months is essential to being able to find treatment and ways to cope with SAD. 

According to past research by medical professionals and psychiatrists, men are much less likely to visit the doctor in comparison to women. Elderly men, in particular, can fall victim to this, brought on by a mentality that men can’t be weak or discuss personal problems. Because of this, it’s also important to recognise the tell-tale traits of SAD in your friends or partner too. 

In more severe cases, a diagnosis of SAD can involve medication such as antidepressants or behavioural therapies such as CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy). However, for many, it involves a change in lifestyle and introducing new activities, coping mechanisms or holistic and vitamin-based treatments that will focus on re-balancing or boosting your melatonin and serotonin levels to stabilize your circadian rhythm. Whether you have a diagnosis of SAD, are a sufferer of the symptoms or think you may know someone affected, there are many ways to combat its effects and live your life as normally as possible.

Increase your Vitamin D intake

Did you know that your body’s main source of vitamin D is from the sun? And there are actually very few foods that naturally contain vitamin D, with some oily fish, mushrooms, beef and eggs being the main contributors. Because of this, many people in the UK across every age group tend to become vitamin D deficient in the winter, which can result in lethargy and SAD-like symptoms.

An increase of vitamin D during these winter months can make a huge difference and you may notice a lift in your mentality and mood in a short amount of time. Again, as our bodies are able to produce this vitamin best when the sun is on our skin, it is important to try and get outdoors as much as possible. If getting outside is too difficult, however, there are other ways to get a dose of sunshine without having to leave your home. Perhaps sit by an open, south-facing window with plenty of blankets and a book, writing or knitting project to keep you entertained. Alternatively, you could make the most of your home’s space by sitting outside on your balcony or garden, if you have one. By staying within your premises, you will be able to have control over your own comfort, as well as have access to handy home comforts such as the kettle and kitchen, for unlimited hot teas or a hearty cup-a-soup. Thankfully, there are now many foods that are fortified with vitamin D available to buy, with some cereals, bread and drinks containing it. Taking a supplement could also be considered to increase your vitamin D intake, but this should only be done with the approval of your doctor. 

If you have a diagnosis of SAD, there are also a number of excellent artificial sunlight lamps, specially designed for the illness. Many of them are UV based, but you can also now find LED seasonal affective disorder lamps. Other lighting options include ‘dawn simulators’ which can be used in place of an alarm clock and will gently wake you with a light that replicates dawn. 

Stay active in winter 

When it’s gloomy outside it can feel incredibly difficult to get off a comfy sofa and out of ‘hibernation’ mode. However, a lack of exercise is one of the biggest culprits in lowering your mood. Not only does exercise provide a boost of endorphins that will make you feel happier, but it will contribute to the maintenance of your weight, which is especially important for this time of year. 

With the Christmas season and festive foods on offer, it’s normal for most people to put on a few pounds, however for sufferers of SAD, gaining an increased amount of weight over a short period of time is common. This can contribute to a low mood and make it even more difficult to get outdoors. 

Whether it’s a brisk walk outside, a yoga class or following an exercise video in your living room, look for ways to increase activity and get your blood pumping. Perhaps take the stairs instead of getting the lift, walk to the shops instead of taking the bus, or find an exercise class at the local community centre or gym. 

When there’s a spell of good weather, try to be active outside for an extra dose of vitamin D. Britain is known for its glorious crisp and bright winter days that are ideal for rambles or hikes. For people who may suffer from weaker bones, activities such as swimming and cycling are known to have much less impact. 

Find new ways to experience the outdoors

According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, a large part of treating SAD should also involve spending as much time as possible outdoors and in the daylight during winter.

Getting outside doesn’t just have to be to centred around exercise, however. And as treating SAD requires an increase in accessing sunlight, it’s important to get creative to how you can enjoy the outdoors. 

If you have access to a garden or land, you can take up gardening and prepare the soil for the spring. Alternately, both public and private gardens can be an excellent place for hobbies such as bird watching, reading or drawing. A flask of hot tea, fold-up-chair and a sandwich or two are the perfect partner to a few hours spent sitting outside absorbing your surroundings and soaking up the sunlight. Not only can you birdwatch, read and draw in public gardens, but you can also head to the countryside, woodland or lakes to do this too. 

As well as this, you can go foraging for seasonal foods such as nettle, rosehips, sweet chestnuts, hawthorn and winter cress. There are plenty of things to forage in every month of the year, and in the autumn, they can make excellent additions to baking and Christmas gifts. In addition to edibles, you can forage for conkers, field rose, holly and other stunning plants. 

Make the most of companionship

Staying social is a vital part of lifting low moods and combating the effects of seasonal affective disorder. Not only will it help refocus your mind, but it can also encourage you to maintain a more regular routine and stick to schedules.

Whether it’s adding a weekly coffee morning to your diary or sitting on a balcony with a friend, hot drinks and plenty of blankets, there are a number of effortless ways to stay social without having to stray far from home. You can even pencil in a weekly call with a family member or friend to boost your feeling of wellbeing. 

Perhaps look into regular community groups and initiatives that you can get involved in such as fundraising, organising or contributing to local libraries or museums. For some people, a sense of contribution to society is the most pleasing way to socialise and can offer plenty of benefits to both physical and mental health.

Companionship can also be found in ways that aren’t reliant on humans, with pets being cited as an excellent way to remain social and soothe a depressive mood. A dog or cat makes for a wonderful cuddling companion and will give you another being to care for, in turn distracting your mind and helping maintain a routine. In fact, there are plenty of dog and cat owners who may state that they prefer the presence of their pets than people! Find out more about the psychological benefits of pets, here.

Don’t diet, change your eating habits for good

As overeating and weight gain is a common side effect of SAD and a low mood in the winter, it is important to prepare for the upcoming months with a positive change in your eating habits. It’s also important to remember that its normal for most people to gain a couple of pounds during this season, so don’t be too hard on yourself. Make sure that you don’t restrict yourself to a diet as this can cause extra stress and pressure that may negatively impact SAD. Instead, get to know your eating habits and how you can opt for healthier foods that will still satisfy your cravings.

Look into swapping your sweet and savoury treats for healthier options and stocking up your fridge and cupboards with them. For example, instead of cheddar cheese on cream crackers, perhaps opt for a lighter cream or cottage cheese on oat crackers. You can also swap milk chocolate for dark chocolate, or better still, a handful of grapes or dried fruits and nuts and whole milk for semi-skimmed or oat milk. 

It’s still OK to indulge yourself every now and then. It can actually contribute to a short-term lift in mood, however, make sure to do it in a way that will impact your health the least. By treating yourself with lighter, healthier snacks you can still enjoy the guilty pleasures that come with the season, yet feel happier that your body and weight won’t suffer.

Fill your fruit bowl with seasonal berries, Victoria plums and apples and fill a dish with delicious nuts. By sticking to seasonal produce, it also will feel like a treat that you wouldn’t normally eat. Finally, you can also look into buying delicious foods such as sweet chestnuts, rye bread and Christmas cheeses to benefit this time of year. You can access dozens of recipes in our recipe hub here.

Are you looking for something a bit more active? You can read our top tips to keep fit.

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