Self-help tips to beat the winter blues
Written by Dr Claudia Pastides
, 3 min read
During autumn and winter, many of us feel more tired, irritable and lacking in motivation. But what’s the science behind ‘winter blues’ and how can you get through it?
The term winter blues is frequently used interchangeably with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD); however, SAD is an uncommon and major form of depression that affects around 6% of people.1 Winter blues on the other hand is a milder and more common form of seasonal mood changes, with some research suggesting it affects over 50% of the population.2
Many liken the winter blues to hibernation, and you might not be surprised to hear that there is indeed some scientific basis to why we want to stay curled up at home, tucking into pizza and chocolate.
Why the winter blues happen
Our brains, neurotransmitters and hormones are affected by the amount of sunlight we are exposed to.
A lack of sunlight knocks our internal body clock off kilter, making us feel more tired earlier in the day.
Reduced sunlight also causes a drop in serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is involved in (amongst many other things) mood, digestion and sleep.
On top of that, melatonin (a hormone that helps to regulate your sleep-wake cycle) is also affected, further contributing to sleep and mood problems.
How to beat the winter blues
The fortunate thing about winter blues is that it fades off as spring approaches. However, this doesn’t stop you feeling more exhausted and sluggish in the meantime. But there are a few things you can do to help yourself get through it.
- Sun exposure. Try and get as much sunlight as possible. Going for a walk in the middle of the day or in your lunch break can help.
- Eat well. Yes, it might seem like boring advice, but aim to eat a healthy balanced diet, with fruit, vegetables and nuts as snacks. It really does help.
- Stay social. Although it is tempting to hide away (and COVID restrictions make socialising extra challenging), try to keep in touch with friends and family.
- Exercise. If you can, try taking up a new hobby over the autumn/winter period that involves walking more or some form of exercise.
- To light box or not to light box? Although the evidence isn’t strong3, research does show that exposure to light treatment (sitting or working near a special SAD lamp) might be helpful. If you do want to buy a SAD lamp, make sure it is clinically approved and take care to read around the potential side effects (such as headaches, blurred vision and eye strain) and contraindications (skin that is sensitive to light, certain medications and eye conditions). Do a little research around this and see if it’s right for you or not.
How winter blues differs from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
SAD is a type of major depression, often beginning in autumn/winter and ending in spring. For many SAD tends to recur every year, for years in a row, affecting their social and working life during this period.
The usual symptoms of SAD include:
- Depression (low mood and a lack of interest or pleasure in doing things)
- Increased sleep
- Increased appetite for carbohydrate rich food.
Typical treatment options include CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and antidepressants.
Where to get help
If you are finding yourself feeling very low at this time of year, don’t hesitate to reach out to your GP or you can also call the Samaritans on 116 123.
Our Babylon GPs are available 24/7, 365 days a year, enabling you to speak to a GP from the comfort of your home via a video call. They can prescribe treatment or make a referral to a specialist if needed.
Download the app here.
- Psychiatry.org. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Available at: https://www.psychiatry.org
- Weathergroup.com. SAD Research UK | The Weather Channel Television Network. Available at: Weathergroup.com
- Cochrane.org. 2019. Light Therapy for Prevention of Winter Depression Available at: https://www.cochrane.org
The information provided is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of a doctor with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never delay seeking or disregard professional medical advice because of something you have read here.