Could your winter blues be something more serious?

What to do if you’re worried about SAD

Seasonal affective disorder is a lot more complex than just mourning the end of summer and being a bit glum. We find out more.

Autumn has arrived and it already feels like we’re heading into the depths of winter. With the annual ritual of putting the clocks back too, it’s easy to feel a bit gloomy about the darker evenings to come.

For around 6% of the UK population though, the onset of winter brings ‘major depressive episodes’ that can be extremely debilitating, making keeping up everyday tasks very difficult.

Far from being just a touch of ‘winter blues’, seasonal affective disorder – otherwise known as SAD – is a form of clinical depression that has a clear pattern, occurring at the same time each year during winter.

“People with SAD regularly feel low in mood during the winter season, but recover during the summer,” says LloydsPharmacy pharmacist Anshu Kaura, (

“You might notice a loss of pleasure or interest in normal activities, feeling irritable, worthless, guilty or in despair, a lack of energy or lethargy during the day, and struggling to get up in the mornings.”

While only a small percentage of the population suffer with chronic and very debilitating SAD, experts believe many more of us may suffer mild effects of the disorder during the winter months; a case of the winter blues that can’t be remedied simply by supping on a pumpkin spice latte or listening to Christmas songs.

“The NHS estimates that around one in 15 people in the UK are affected by SAD between September and April, and symptoms can increase during December, January and February,” says Kaura, who adds that “women are four times more likely to be affected than men, and are more at risk if they are between the ages of 18 and 30″. A family history of depression, bipolar disorder or SAD may also increase your risk.

There are lots of different ideas about why SAD occurs, but evidence seems to point towards lack of sunlight being a trigger for some people. Less daylight hours in winter means the body produces more of the sleep hormone melatonin, which can cause lethargy and symptoms of depression.

What can I do to combat it?

1. Try getting more daily exercise

Kaura explains: “If you experience SAD, lifestyle changes like regular exercise and getting as much sunlight as possible (for example trying to take at least a 20-minute walk outside every lunchtime) can make all the difference.” Other behavioural habits – like making your workspace light and airy and sitting near windows when you’re indoors – can have a positive effect on your overall mood too.

2. Consider your light exposure and vitamin D intake

food high in vitamin D

The power of vitamin D shouldn’t be underestimated. “In the UK, winter sunlight from October to early-March doesn’t contain enough UVB radiation for our skin to make vitamin D,” says Kaura. “During these months, we rely on getting vitamin D from food sources, such as oily fish, red meat and egg yolks.”

However, the NHS suggests everyone in the UK should take a vitamin D supplement during winter, and vitamin D deficiency is fairly widespread, which can impact on your health in a number of ways. “You should speak to your GP if you suspect you may be deficient and they can perform a simple test,” says Kaura.

There’s tech that can help too. “You could also consider using a sunrise lamp to stimulate exposure to sunlight, known as light therapy,” says Kaura. Lamps such as a Beurer TL20 SAD Lamp (£54.99, available from LloydsPharmacy), simulate natural daylight to help regulate your sleep and wake hormones.

“Herbal remedies like St John’s wort are also available at your local pharmacy, and are thought to improve mood and may help those with mild to moderate symptoms. However, they shouldn’t be used with a light box, as it can make your skin more sensitive to light,” warns Kaura.

3. Manage your diet

When we’re feeling tired and rundown, it’s easy to reach for sugary foods like chocolate, cakes and biscuits to boost our blood sugar levels, but dietitian Helen Bond says the energy boost will be short-lived.

“It’s much better to go for healthier choices, which will give us a longer lasting source of energy, such as fruit, nuts and seeds, yogurt and oat cakes.

“Also, when we are tired and sleep-deprived, our levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin surge, which makes us crave these high sugary, fatty foods which will not give us sustained energy,” she adds. “It won’t help feed our gut microbes, too – which is a double whammy for our energy levels.

“The best way to get all the nutrients, vitamins and minerals our bodies and gut microbes need is to eat a well-balanced and varied diet. But eating healthily can be challenging, especially when we’re busy juggling busy work schedules with the hectic demands of family life.”

It’s certainly not a substitute for a healthy and varied diet, but Bond says taking a daily multivitamin and mineral food supplement can help top up your levels of energy-giving nutrients and ensure that you achieve recommended daily intakes.

4. Sort out your sleep routine

Feeling lethargic and sleepy during the day, or sleeping for longer than normal, are key symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, so taking steps to manage the time your spend in bed can help to keep both body and mind in a healthy routine.

Dr Irshaad Ebrahim, medical director of The London Sleep Centre, says, “Everyone is different and so is the amount of sleep they need each night.

On average, a ‘normal’ amount of sleep for an adult is considered to be around seven to nine hours a night, but children and babies sleep for much longer than this.”

That said, Ebrahim believes quality of sleep is more important than the amount of sleep – and if you don’t get enough good quality sleep you’ll feel tired the next day, no matter how many hours you’ve had.

“We need the perfect conditions for optimal sleep – this includes the temperature of the room.” In the winter, we often rely on central heating to keep us warm, but Ebrahim explains that, naturally, our body temperature drops and raises whilst we sleep. So try keeping the heating off but having a few layers of bedding instead, so you can remove or add layers throughout the night.

“It’s tempting to get a few extra hours sleep at the weekend and many people look forward to a Sunday lie-in. However, changing your sleep pattern can knock your body out of routine for the coming week. It’s best to try and stick to the same bed time and wake-up time if possible,” he adds.

And if you’re really struggling?

If you’ve tried self-help and lifestyle measures and SAD is still affecting your day-to-day life, talk to your GP or pharmacist. An accurate diagnosis can be really helpful and there are treatment options that can help. These can include antidepressants and drug-free treatments like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), and a qualified medical professional will be able to chat through the best course of action for you.

Have you got a health question?

We've teamed up with AXA PPP healthcare to bring you articles, information and tips from their clinical teams on a wide range of health topics. And if you have a question of your own, their, "Ask the Expert" service allows you to ask the team of friendly, experienced nurses, pharmacists and midwives about any health topic and they'll get back to you with an answer as soon as they’re able.* So if you have something that’s been bothering you, whether it concerns you or someone close to you, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Click below to submit your query online.


* Nurses are available 24/7, 365 days a year. Midwives and pharmacists are available Monday to Friday, 8am to 8pm; Saturday, 8am to 4pm; and Sunday, 8am to 12pm.
Actual response time will depend on the nature of your enquiry and availability of appropriately qualified experts but the team will always aim to get back to you within 24 hours.
Please note that our Expert Help services are there to offer health information and support. They do not diagnose or prescribe, and are not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice given in the context of an individual consultation.


The following two tabs change content below.

The Press Association

News from the Press Association - the national news agency for the UK and Ireland

Leave a Comment!

Not a member?

You need to be a member to interact with Silversurfers. Joining is free and simple to do. Click the button below to join today!

Click here if you have forgotten your password

Community Terms & Conditions

Content standards

These content standards apply to any and all material which you contribute to our site (contributions), and to any interactive services associated with it.

You must comply with the spirit of the following standards as well as the letter. The standards apply to each part of any contribution as well as to its whole.

Contributions must:

be accurate (where they state facts); be genuinely held (where they state opinions); and comply with applicable law in the UK and in any country from which they are posted.

Contributions must not:

contain any material which is defamatory of any person; or contain any material which is obscene, offensive, hateful or inflammatory; or promote sexually explicit material; or promote violence; promote discrimination based on race, sex, religion, nationality, disability, sexual orientation or age; or infringe any copyright, database right or trade mark of any other person; or be likely to deceive any person; or be made in breach of any legal duty owed to a third party, such as a contractual duty or a duty of confidence; or promote any illegal activity; or be threatening, abuse or invade another’s privacy, or cause annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety; or be likely to harass, upset, embarrass, alarm or annoy any other person; or be used to impersonate any person, or to misrepresent your identity or affiliation with any person; or give the impression that they emanate from us, if this is not the case; or advocate, promote or assist any unlawful act such as (by way of example only) copyright infringement or computer misuse.

Nurturing a safe environment

Our Silversurfers community is designed to foster friendships, based on trust, honesty, integrity and loyalty and is underpinned by these values.

We don't tolerate swearing, and reserve the right to remove any posts which we feel may offend others... let's keep it friendly!