As the clocks go back and evenings are doused in darkness, we all become wistful for long summer days, before settling into hunkering down for winter. But for around 3 per cent of the population who suffer from depressive moods triggered by seasonal affective disorder or SAD, the approaching months are filled with real despair.
There is a difference between feeling down because of the weather and experiencing SAD, says Stephen Buckley, from mental health charity Mind. “Many people feel more cheerful and energetic when the sun is shining and the days are longer, but if you have SAD the change in seasons has a much greater effect on mood and energy levels, leading to symptoms of depression that have a significant impact on day-to-day life.”
Although it is not known exactly what causes SAD, don’t panic as some simple steps can be taken to alleviate its symptoms. Read on to find out some top tips from the experts!
Go for a walk in nature
While the causes of SAD aren’t always clear, we know that a lack of daylight can have a big impact on mood, especially during the autumn and winter months. When light hits the back of the eye, messages are passed to the part of the brain responsible for sleep, appetite, sex drive, temperature, mood and activity.
If there’s not enough light these functions are likely to slow down and gradually stop. The lack of daylight hours may also slow your body clock, making you feel more tired, and increase production of the hormone melatonin, which helps you get to sleep – both things may therefore link to depression.
Going for walks, particularly around midday or on bright days, even if it’s just taking a short stroll, can be effective in reducing symptoms.
Spending time in parks or gardens, or simply sitting near a window can also help.
A light box that creates a bright white or blue light is also helpful to some. However, the evidence for them isn’t reliable and they can be quite expensive, which means they aren’t an option for everyone, so spending more time in natural light is recommended.
While you may not feel like it during the winter, physical activity can be very effective in lifting your mood and increasing your energy levels. It doesn’t have to be anything particularly strenuous – doing housework, gardening or going for a gentle walk can all help. Research shows that outdoor exercise, such as cycling or jogging, can be as effective as antidepressants in treating mild to moderate depression.
Bringing nature into your home can also help, and watering plants can create a feeling of accomplishment that may lift your mood.
Eat a healthy, well-rounded diet
In winter, you might crave comfort foods such as sweets, chocolate, cakes and biscuits. But this way of eating will actually make the symptoms worse. Instead, eat lots of healthy fats, good quality protein, green leafy vegetables, fibre and complex carbohydrates. Try more wholegrain carbohydrates such as brown rice and brown pasta, which include more fibre and nutrients than the white varieties. Try making hearty meals such as a homemade bolognese with a sweet potato or brown rice instead of white pasta, or turkey ratatouille with mixed vegetables, or lean turkey, pure chopped tomatoes served with a mixed salad, or baked salmon with stir-fry broccoli, onion and cabbage.
Holly Zoccolan, holistic lifestyle and nutrition coach
Load up on vitamins and minerals
Oily fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel, eaten three times a week, provide good levels of the essential fatty acids EPA/DHA required for a healthy brain. Others with these fats – walnuts, dark green leafy vegetables and flaxseeds – have too little to have a therapeutic effect.
Protein foods that provide a good supply of tryptophan (that converts to serotonin in the brain) are poultry, shrimps, tofu and eggs. But all protein foods supply some tryptophan, so eat a varied diet of meat and fish.
Vitamin D3 must be supplemented by people living in the northern hemisphere, because we do not obtain sufficient UVB rays on our skin in winter convert to vitamin D. Butter, egg yolks and oily fish contain very small amounts, but not the 1000iu D3 that you need daily. Magnesium citrate is a useful supplement. Potential symptoms of low magnesium levels are cramps, constipation and headaches, although there could be other reasons for these symptoms, too.
To know which foods and ways of eating work for you, listen to your body. If you feel sluggish, tired, and not firing all cylinders, then something in your diet is often not right. You may well be missing vital nutrients, your blood sugar levels might not be not balanced or you are consuming too many pro-inflammatory foods.
Caroline Peyton of Peyton Principles, nutritional therapist and naturopath
Work on a positive mindset
Your brain doesn’t know the difference between the narrative you tell it, and reality. If you focus on being miserable and trapped inside, your subconscious mind will focus on that.
Try to spend five minutes at the start of every day writing down or speaking about everything you are grateful for, however big or small. You can’t feel negative feelings when you’re in a state of being grateful, even if it’s just a cup of great coffee or cosy sweater. Repeating positive affirmations will also help to reframe the way you think about yourself and stop negative self-talk.
Stay sociable and connected It can be tempting to hunker down and hide when the weather outside is bad and it’s dark by 4.30pm, but does that actually suit you?
If seeing friends and family, going to the cinema, sporting events, the theatre and exhibitions or even just heading out for a meal once a week brings you joy, don’t stop in winter.
Pull on warm boots and a good coat and plan a normal social life. Even if you don’t stay out late, having events in your diary will give your days and weeks structure and help you deal with winter.
Lean into longer evenings
When you do have an evening at home, is there anything you can do with that time that will give you a feeling of accomplishment? It’s been shown that having something new and interesting to focus on wards off symptoms of SAD.
Create photo albums of your summer holidays, redecorate a room in your house or clear out the cupboard that’s become a dumping ground. An hour or two working towards a goal of ticking off jobs from a list will help you to relax and feel like you deserve to spend an evening on the sofa.
Tara Best, neuro-linguistic programming coach and practitioner
Being exposed to natural daylight is important – especially as many of us continue to work from home or adjust to a hybrid way of working. If possible, try making your working environment lighter and airier by opening more curtains and blinds. Like many people, I have brought a SAD lamp, because the bright light it produces positively affects my mood by lifting levels of hormones and neurochemicals.