Stress, anxiety and depression

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Do you have the winter blues?

Moodzone: Low mood and depression

Media last reviewed: 02/03/2015

Next review due: 02/03/2017

Lots of people get depressed in winter, or suffer from "the winter blues". The medical name for this winter depression is seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

If the short, dark days are getting you down, what can you do to feel like yourself again?

What causes winter depression?

Despite the fact that millions of us say we've suffered a winter-related low mood, it can feel as though the winter blues is just a myth. But there's sound scientific evidence to support the idea that the season can affect our moods.

Most scientists believe that the problem is related to the way the body responds to daylight. Alison Kerry, from the mental health charity MIND, says: “With SAD, one theory is that light entering the eye causes changes in hormone levels in the body. In our bodies, light functions to stop the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, making us wake up.

“It’s thought that SAD sufferers are affected by shorter daylight hours in the winter. They produce higher melatonin, causing lethargy and symptoms of depression.”

If you’re going through a bout of winter blues, lack of daylight is probably playing a part.

Get more light for SAD

If the winter blues is about lack of daylight, it’s no surprise that treatment involves getting more light into your life. If you feel low in winter, get outside as often as you can, especially on bright days. Sitting by a window can also help.

You might be tempted to escape the dark winter days with a holiday somewhere sunny. This can be effective for some, but other SAD sufferers have found that their condition gets worse when they return to the UK.

Light therapy is often used to treat SAD. This involves sitting in front of or beneath a light box that produces a very bright light. Your GP can give you more information.

Read more about treating SAD.

Eat yourself happier in winter

It’s also important to eat well during the winter. Winter blues can make you crave sugary foods and carbohydrates such as chocolate, pasta and bread, but don’t forget to include plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables in your diet.

Read more about how to get 5 A DAY.

Get active to beat SAD

There is another weapon against the seasonal slump: keeping active.

Dr Andrew McCulloch is former chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, which produced a report on the mental health benefits of exercise. He says: “There’s convincing evidence that 30 minutes of vigorous exercise three times a week is effective against depression and anecdotal evidence that lighter exercise will have a beneficial effect, too.

“If you have a tendency towards SAD, outdoor exercise will have a double benefit, because you’ll gain some daylight.”

Activity is believed to change the level of the mood-regulating chemical serotonin in the brain. It can also help by providing a pleasant change of scene, and helping you to meet new people.

If you’re suffering from SAD, your GP might be able to refer you to an exercise scheme. But if winter blues is your problem, why not get out and exercise independently? 

The charity Mind says research has shown that a one-hour walk in the middle of the day is an effective way to beat the winter blues.

Ramblers offers a Festival of Winter Walks each year, with routes ranging from 3 to 10 miles. They're a great way to enjoy some moderate, daylight activity.

Read more about getting fit whatever your age.

Page last reviewed: 15/04/2015

Next review due: 15/04/2017

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The 4 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Dawn Bodden said on 01 February 2015

I have suffered from SAD for years. I agree with exercise helping. I have not used a light yet, but I often consider it. I have recently started a great supplement and it helps a ton. I have also started using essential oils. Anyone else have success with this? I have managed to have minimum symptoms this winter. I am very happy about this and so is my family.

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CarmineLowe said on 16 November 2014

They make light boxes that you can use to get the proper kind of light that you need. You can read about them here http://www.sadlamps.org, but Dr. Rosenthal who is the man that recognized SAD also coined the name and him and his colleagues came to the conclusion that light therapy was the best answer for treating seasonal affective disorder.

I'm shocked there was no mention of this in the article, because most doctors support light therapy as an effective means of treatment.

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jf007 said on 06 August 2014

Has anyone else tried 5-HTP patches for SAD? There doesn't seem to be much formal advice in the UK / from the NHS. I've tried them a bit, but am sticking to low dose/slow release options.

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Ancientmariner said on 01 January 2013

It is not just the lack of sunshine which is depressing, it is the cold and the virtually endless pouring rain.
If one has the misfortune to own a car that has an MOT which expires in the winter months the vehicle may be impossible to repair unless a dry heated workshop is available. Garages that charge £60 per hour are also very depressing and a light box won't solve that problem!

Head torches can be extremely useful however and they are a great safety feature in rural areas where there is no street lighting.

Roll-on summer!

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