Sarah’s Health Notes: Beating Winter Blues

Sarah’s Health Notes: Beating Winter Blues

Trawling articles about winter blues, medically called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or winter depression, I found opinions from psychiatrists saying the condition was a myth or hypochondria. These dated back over a decade and thank goodness these ‘myths’ have been relegated to fake news. NHS Direct is clear that SAD is ‘a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern’, with symptoms usually more apparent and more severe during the winter. 

Two million people in the UK are estimated to suffer from SAD, which occurs more often in women than men and is more common the further north you live. The cause is generally accepted as a shortage of sunlight - and thus vitamin D - plus shorter days and longer nights acting on the brain and causing changes to hormones: in a nutshell less serotonin, the happy hormone, and more melatonin, the sleepy hormone.

Those hormones influence our biological clock – the circadian rhythms that govern our wake/sleep pattern. SAD sufferers have circadian rhythms that cannot synchronise with shorter days and longer nights, according to the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association (SADA). Researchers theorise that this may result in episodes of depression.

According to NHS Inform, the key symptoms are:

  • Depression
  • Sleep problems
  • Lethargy
  • Overeating
  • Irritability
  • Feeling down and unstable

However, everyone experiences SAD in an individual way, and seldom have all the symptoms (see https://www.sada.org.uk/#what-causes-sad for a full list). The condition affects people along a spectrum of severity with some people experiencing similar symptoms but less intensely. You may find that called ‘subsyndromal SAD’ or winter blues.

If you have ongoing depression and other symptoms for more than two weeks, the medical advice is to consult your GP, who is likely to treat it in the same way as other types of depression, with talking treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or antidepressants. 

However, given the difficulties of seeing a GP, you might want to try these Self-Help Tips for Overcoming SAD, based on those recommended by SADA.

  1. Take exercise daily to boost your mood naturally. Arrange to meet a friend or ask them to collect you and insist you accompany them.
  2. Get out in the sunlight every day. Around noon gives you the best chance of bright light to lift your mood and help restore vitamin D levels.
  3. Spend time in nature. Green or eco therapy has been shown to be immensely successful in overcoming mental health issues.
  4. Spend time with pets. Studies have shown pets can improve mood, reduce stress and anxiety and even decrease high blood pressure.
  5. Eat healthy food, including oily fish two or three times a week and lots of vegetables and whole fruit (not fruit juice/squash); don’t skip meals.
  6. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day. Avoid binge watching TV or being on social media constantly.
  7.  Ask for help if you’re not coping. So phone a friend, pop round to see someone, you might be able to help someone else. Don’t brood alone. Keep seeing people.
  8. Practise breathing exercises and mindfulness to help break a negative thought pattern. This article may help.

Supplements can help too. Pharmacist Shabir Daya recommends:

  1. Vitamin D3: women should take 2000iu daily, men 3000iu daily. The easiest way is a couple of squishes of BetterYou Dlux Vitamin D Oral Spray.
  2. Omega-3 essential fatty acids: Bare Biology Life & Soul Omega-3 Fish Oil Mini Capsules
  3. Saffron extract: Viridian Saffron Extract has been clinically researched to support mood and other factors. Saffron helps emotional balance, relaxation and a positive mood.

Bright light therapy has been recommended for a long time although the evidence is somewhat patchy, according to NICE. We are firm supporters from our own experience. Many people also find Sunrise Alarm Clocks helpful. These gradually grow brighter as the dawn does, rather than the discordant jangling of an alarm clock catapulting your brain from sleep to wakefulness.