Do the bleak, dark and cold winter months leave you feeling more down and depressed than usual? If so, maybe you suffer from seasonal affective disorder or SAD. It’s a type of mood disorder which can affect sleep, appetite and mental health. Read on for more information.


So what are the symptoms of SAD? These can include but are not limited to:

  • Persistent low mood
  • Lethargy 
  • Changes in appetite
  • Easily irritated
  • Loss of pleasure or interest in the activities you usually love
  • Sleeping more than usual
  • Unintentional weight gain
  • Feelings of guilt and despair
  • Struggling to wake up in the mornings


What causes it?

Interestingly, the exact cause(s) are not yet fully understood; most theories attribute SAD being linked to the reduced sun exposure we get during the winter months. The main theories are listed below.  

Melatonin production

When it’s dark, your body produces a hormone called melatonin, which makes you sleepy. When there is sunlight, your body suppresses melatonin production. In people with SAD, the body may produce more than normal amounts, resulting in feeling more drowsy and fatigued. 

Circadian rhythm

Also known as your body’s internal clock, your circadian rhythm relies on changes in sunlight to time certain functions, such as waking up. In winter time, the lower sunlight levels may disrupt your body clock. 

Serotonin production

Serotonin is a hormone that helps to regulate mood. A lack of sunlight during winter may lead to lower serotonin levels, which can cause depressive symptoms. 


What can you do?

Seasonal depression can make it difficult for you to seek help or motivate yourself to make changes. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommend that SAD should be treated the same way as depression. This can involve talking therapies and medicine. The best way to get access is to contact your GP or healthcare practitioner. Below are 5 tips to help you lift your mood. 


1. Get outside!

It can be quite daunting doing the usual work commute in darkness both there and back. Try to get as much natural sunlight as you can throughout the day. Take short walks outside, have your lunch break outdoors, go for a quick coffee and soak up whatever sun there is. 


2. Increase natural sunlight at home or work

Trying to increase the natural sunlight at home or at work can help lift your mood even in small doses. Simple tricks like opening blinds and drapes and sitting near windows can help. Additionally, light therapy is a particularly popular method in treating SAD, a light box at home can simulate exposure to sunlight. 


3. Exercise

Having a low mood or being depressed can decrease your motivation to exercise and stay fit. Regular exercise can actually help boost your mood and improve your sleep! It's recommended that adults get 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise each week. If you are struggling to get those minutes in, brisk walks outdoors and simple home workouts can be effective. Check this out for some useful tips.


4. Healthy diet

This one goes without saying. Eating well-balanced meals throughout the day and staying hydrated can help you to maintain your energy throughout the day. 


5. Managing stress

This one can be difficult. Most people can feel stressed at times and this can bring your mood down. There are things you can do to try manage stress including:

  • Talking to a friend or family member about what you are going through
  • Try breathing exercises to help calm and centre yourself
  • Planning ahead for stressful events or days
  • Set time aside for yourself and prioritise you
  • Download and try some relaxation or mindfulness apps


Whatever tips you consider or course of action you choose to take, it’s important for you to understand that there is help out there - you don’t have to go through it alone. If your symptoms are so bad that it affects your normal day-to-day life, see your GP or health practitioner for help.

Useful links:

1. NHS - Seasonal Affective Disorder

2. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence 

3. NHS - Mental health guides and tools


Dr Alexander | Well Squared

Dr Alexander, MB ChB, BSc (Hons) - Senior Writer

January 10, 2022 — Dr Zobir Alexander