Seasonal affective disorder: what is it and what can you do about it?

    As the days get shorter and colder, many of us experience some form of the winter blues, and for a certain segment of the population, these feelings go beyond being a bit down in the dumps. For some people the lack of daylight in winter can lead to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that typically causes feelings of lethargy and sadness throughout the winter months.

    What triggers SAD

    Seasonal affective disorder is thought to be linked to changes in hormone levels triggered by decreased levels of daylight in winter. For instance, our bodies need sunlight to produce serotonin, a hormone that boosts our mood. In winter, when we don’t get as much daylight, serotonin levels can drop and feelings of depression ensue.

    For those who suffer from SAD, the winter months can be an exceedingly difficult time. The symptoms are similar to those of classic depression, with sufferers reporting feelings of a fatigue, sadness, irritability, lack of interest in ordinary activities, and difficulty in concentrating. They may also experience feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness and there can be physical symptoms too, such as carbohydrate cravings that often lead to weight gain.

    If you think you may be suffering from SAD, you should consider seeing your GP to discuss options for treatment. There are also lifestyle measures that you can take now to help alleviate the symptoms of SAD. Even those who only suffer from mild winter blues may find that some of the following tips help feel a little bit better in the depths of winter.

    Get outside

    As SAD is strongly related to lack of sunlight, it stands to reason that the more sunlight you see, the better you’ll feel. Hence, get outside whenever you can during the winter months, especially around midday when the sun’s rays are strongest. Consider taking up a winter sport or simply bundle up for a long walk in nature – although even a short stroll on your lunch break can help boost your mood.


    Even if it’s not practical to exercise outdoors, try not to neglect your workouts during the winter months. Exercise helps to relieve stress, boost circulation and increase your energy, all of which will help clear your head and improve your mood. It’s even better if you can turn your workout into a social occasion by getting fit with a friend, thereby incorporating the next tip, which is to…


    You may feel tempted to hide away and hibernate until spring, spending time with friends and family can actually help relieve your symptoms, or at least take your mind off them for a while. Concentrating on someone else, especially if it’s someone who makes you laugh, or always cheers you up can provide some much-needed relief. Even better, try to arrange to take part in a hobby or other activity with your friends as this will help keep you from settling into a rut and force you to leave the house and participate in society throughout the winter months.

    Maintain a healthy diet

    Vitamin deficiencies can also affect your mood, so it’s important to eat a variety of healthy foods throughout the winter, putting a particular focus on fruit and vegetables. Try to focus on healthy, wholegrain carbohydrates to satisfy your cravings, and be sure to always include a source of protein to keep you feeling full longer. If you can avoid giving in to cravings for high-fat or sugary comfort foods, it will help to balance your blood sugar levels and keep your mood on an even keel.

    Other options

    If you are suffering from SAD your GP may recommend treatment such as light therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or antidepressants based on the severity of your symptoms.