Many people find the shorter, winter days affect their mood. From prevention to what may help, here are our top tips to beating the winter blues
Winter is coming (or is already here, depending on when you’re reading this), and the lack of sunlight can make your mood drop faster than the temperature. Here’s our guide to preventing, spotting and figuring out when to get support for the winter blues.
What are the winter blues?
The winter blues is a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern and is sometimes referred to as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
What are the common causes of the winter blues?
The exact cause is still unknown, but it’s thought to be caused by reduced sunlight and its ability to affect a part of the brain called the hypothalamus from working properly.
This can have an effect on the levels of certain hormones. "It can decrease our serotonin levels (the happy hormone), which in turn affects our mood, motivation and sleep patterns," explains clinical hypnotherapist, Fiona Lamb. It can also affect the production of melatonin, the sleep hormone.
"We also tend to stay inside a lot more during the colder and darker months. Being less social can lead to loneliness and feelings of isolation," Fiona adds.
Who is most likely to suffer from the winter blues?
According to NHS statistics, the winter blues – or SAD – affects around two million of us in the UK and more than 12 million people across northern Europe.*
It can affect people of any age – including children – with the mean age of those with symptoms around 27 years old. And if a close family member experiences it you are more likely to experience it too. Women are also more likely to be affected by it.
"Those with a history of mental health issues should also be extra vigilant and be aware of symptoms emerging," advises Fiona.
What are the symptoms of the winter blues?
So what are the symptoms to look out for? Key signs include:
• Depression or a persistent low mood
• Sleep problems
• Feeling down and unsociable
If you’re concerned, book an appointment with your GP who can assist you further.
When should you seek help and who should you turn to?
"When you begin to feel as if you're unable to function and live your life like you have previously, it's time to seek some guidance from your GP," says Fiona.
If your winter blues are becoming unmanageable or causing anxiety, Boots Online Doctor Depression & Anxiety Treatment service** may help. Find out more about the mental health support offered by Boots here.
How to fight the winter blues
"Your GP is an important contact for help and treatment," explains Fiona. They may be able to recommend or refer you for talking treatments, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, or medicines such as antidepressants should these be helpful for your particular needs.
"A good therapist may also be able to help you identify any underlying depression, which may have been triggered and help you look for ways to naturally boost your happy hormones," says Fiona.
There are also some things that you can try yourself. Here are some lifestyle tweaks to help you keep the winter blues at bay.
When the temperature drops – and your mood and energy drop too – finding the motivation to exercise can be tough. But research has shown that exercise can help improve mood and mental functioning in addition to the physical benefits, such as helping to reduce your chances of developing heart disease and diabetes.
Cold outside? Check out our pick of the best at-home workouts.
A healthy diet
It might be tempting to grab something comforting and chocolate covered on colder days, but there's a link between a healthy, balanced diet and mental health. Not only can eating a varied, balanced and healthy diet help support energy levels, but it may curb carbohydrate cravings and help you maintain a healthy weight.
Soak up the sunshine
Wrap up and try to get outside whenever you can to help lift your mood, especially at midday or on brighter days. So, why not take a few minutes of your lunch break to walk outside? This is not only good for your mental health, but physical health, so it's a win-win. If inside, try to sit by a window and open your blinds or curtains to allow natural sunlight in. And if you’re working from home, try to position your desk near a window.
Important for maintaining healthy bones and teeth, vitamin D is created by the body from direct sunlight on the skin when we’re outside. It can also be found in a small number of unfortified and fortified foods. Low levels of vitamin D have been found in people with SAD, so it might be worth adding a vitamin D supplement to your diet, particularly during October and March as, according to the NHS, it’s almost impossible to get enough vitamin D from sunlight alone during these months. Government advice is that everyone should consider taking a 10 microgram daily vitamin D supplement during autumn and winter.
Vitamin D supplement
Consider: Boots Vitamin D 10 µg
• Size: 90 tablets
• Suitable for adults and children aged 12 years and over
• Each tablet provides 10 micrograms of vitamin D
• Suitable for vegetarians
• Free from artificial colours, flavours and preservatives
This three-month supply is great to have on hand during the winter months to help top up your vitamin D levels when sunlight is sparse.
Try light therapy
On darker days, light therapy can help make up for the lack of natural sunlight. Some people find that sitting by a lamp that mimics natural outdoor light for around 30 minutes to an hour each morning helps improve their overall mood and wellbeing.
If you’re finding it hard to shake that sluggish feeling in the morning, a sunrise-simulating alarm clock could become your best friend. It works by gradually lighting up your bedroom to help you wake gently.
A SAD lamp
Consider: Lumie Vitamin L SAD and Energy Light
• Class IIa medical device
• Energy efficient and UV-free
• Rippled diffuser for a soft, comfortable light
• Warm white LEDs
• Portrait or landscape use• 10,000 lux at 22cm
• Typically 30-minute treatment
• Three-year warranty
Providing 10,000 lux, this device provides effective light therapy after just 30 minutes and can be taken with you, wherever you go, be it the office, home or travelling. Side note: Vitamin L is not a vitamin, but a reference to the mood-enhancing properties of light.
A sunrise alarm clock
Consider: Lumie Bodyclock Shine 300 Wake-up Alarm
• Class I medical device
• FM radio
• Choice of 14 sleep/wake sounds
• Adjustable sunrise light intensity
• Tap-control snooze
With sunrise and sunset options, this alarm clock is a joy to wake up or fall asleep to during the winter months.
When the mornings are darker, it’s tempting to hit snooze and pull the duvet back over your head when you hear your alarm in the mornings or hunker down and head to bed with a hot chocolate too early in the evening. If your sleeping patterns are off balance, chances are you’ll feel even more sluggish.
Everybody is different, but the NHS suggests between seven to nine hours of sleep a night is best for adults, and that a consistent sleep routine – including going to bed and waking up at the same time – is key.
Want to learn more about catching Zzzs? Check out our top tips for building a better sleep routine.
Keep a journal to keep track of how you’re feeling
Mental health charity Mind, suggests keeping a note of your mental health symptoms, including when they start and if particular things seem to trigger them, including changes in the weather. This could help you notice patterns and predict when you may be more likely to feel down.
**Access to prescription-only medicine is subject to an online consultation with a clinician to assess suitability. Subject to availability. Charges apply.