Do you dread the winter months? Do you feel tired and depressed when the clocks go back and the nights start drawing in? If you also have mood swings, sleep problems, carbohydrate cravings, headaches, irritability, weight gain or feel you have little interest in life, you may be one of the estimated 2 million people in the UK who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or the less-severe form, often referred to as the winter blues.

What causes this?

Nobody really truley knows what causes the winter blues or SAD. But some experts believe SAD is caused by fewer hours of sunlight during the winter months that deplete your body’s levels of serotonin – often called the ‘feel-good’ chemical.

Low light levels are thought to affect the production of a brain chemical called melatonin, which can disrupt the body’s internal clock (or circadian rhythm). 

If you’re diagnosed with SAD, your GP may recommend treatment with antidepressants called selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs), alongside talking therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy. 

But if you have milder symptoms, we have some tips you can try to protect yourself against the winter slump:

See the light

Try getting out of your home or office at some point during the day for around 20 minutes or longer. And if you can’t get outside, try sitting near a window whenever possible to soak up some natural light.

Get active

Physical activity is widely thought to be an effective way to boost your mood, and there’s a solid body of evidence that suggests exercise may help to alleviate depression. Exercising outdoors, especially when it’s sunny, may have an even stronger effect on SAD/winter blues symptoms.

You don’t have to turn into a fitness fanatic. Just being more active in your day-to-day life can have a huge benefit on the way you feel, especially during the winter.

Eat mood-boosting foods

Many experts believe what you eat can make a huge difference to your mood, especially during the winter, particularly foods that contain the amino acid tryptophan, which converts into serotonin in the brain. Foods rich in tryptophan include bananas, turkey, chicken, fish, cheese, eggs, milk, nuts, avocados and pulses.

Some also believe omega-3 fatty acids may enhance serotonin activity, so eat oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and fresh tuna at least once a week (if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, try adding flaxseeds or chia seeds for an omega-3 boost).

Get help from tech

Try to tackle your blues with the help from technology. Many people with SAD or the winter blues also respond to light therapy, which involves sitting in front of a special light therapy lamp – or light box – at home. You may also find dawn simulators useful,  they use a gradual light to wake you up in the morning, simulating a summers morning.

Always remember to check any light therapy devices to make sure that it has been made by a fully certified manufacturer and is designed for treating SAD.

Additionally, you could try using aromatherapy and the use of essential oils to help boost your mood. As some studies suggest that it could potentially lessen any symptoms.

Stay warm

Some SAD sufferers say their symptoms improve when they keep warm, so make sure your home and workplace are properly heated and wrap up well when you go outdoors. 

If you’re worried about the financial cost of turning up your thermostat, get in touch to find out about our winter fuel payment and information about additional government support you may be entitled to. For more tips on how to winterproof your home take a look at our article.

Keep in contact

When feeling down, it’s natural to want to shut ourselves away from the world. It’s important to keep our social muscles active, as positive relationships bring both joy and perspective to our lives. Make sure you arrange regular catch-ups with your family and friends throughout winter. 

How we can help

CABA provides free lifelong support to past and present ICAEW members, ACA students, ICAEW staff, and their close family members. 

If you need to talk, you can call our 24 hour helpline anytime.  Or, our online counselling service Qwell, gives you a free, confidential space to talk with a qualified counseller and access useful advice and informative articles.