Here’s why you don’t always feel on top form when it’s cold, dark, and wintery.
Sometimes winter just feels like a bit of a slog.
As the nights draw closer, we start to change our day-to-day routines, we can seem low, and getting into bed and hibernation can often feel like the only thing for it.
There are reasons why you feel like you’ve got a full-blown dose of the winter blues, so let’s find out more – along with learning ways to overcome it so you can feel like yourself again.
What are the winter blues?
The winter blues occur when – just as the name suggests – the cold season sets in, with lowering temperatures, shorter days, and a disruption to the regular daily routine, resulting in a mood shift.
You may find yourself feeling more down and lethargic than usual, have some difficulty concentrating and sleeping, and even lose motivation to perform basic tasks.
There’s also a common link between the onset of the winter blues and a specific event associated with the seasonal shift, such as a reminder of absent loved ones or a holiday that brings distress.1
What causes SAD?
Scientists are yet to understand the true cause of SAD, but research has raised several possibilities, and the sunlight – or lack thereof – is key.
Those with the condition may potentially have decreased activity of serotonin, a brain chemical responsible for the regulation of mood2 and considered a ‘happy hormone’.
Sunlight exposure is directly associated with Vitamin D synthesis within our bodies, and the two play an important role in serotonin levels in our bodies.3
Another possibility is that the lack of sunlight might affect the hypothalamus – a section of the brain that plays an important role in hormone production – and impair the production of serotonin, melatonin (a hormone that can make you feel tired), and the body’s internal body clock.4
What are the symptoms of SAD?
Below are 10 symptoms of SAD
10 symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) has many symptoms and these vary from person to person but may include:
- Persistent feelings of depression
- A loss of interest in things you once enjoyed
- Changes in appetite
- Withdrawing and isolating yourself from loved ones
- Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, guilt and despair
- Sleeping difficulties
- Feeling lethargic
- Difficulties concentrating
- Recurring thoughts of death or suicide
Wondering why these symptoms occur? We’ll go into further detail on these symptoms next, including ways to help reduce and prevent them.
- The jury is still out on what exactly causes SAD, but in many people there is a decreased level of serotonin, the ‘happy hormone’.
- Sunlight allows our bodies to create vitamin D, which has a direct impact on the level of serotonin in our body.
- Sunlight may affect the hypothalamus, which is important for hormone production.
- There are many potential symptoms of SAD and these vary depending on the person, although they may include depression and irritability, to name a few.
9 ways to lift your mood in winter
Plus 4 ways to beat winter tiredness…
Exercise (and increase energy levels)
Research has shown that exercise works wonders in alleviating the symptoms of depression6 due to the release of endorphins (a ‘feel good’ chemical that can boost mood), serotonin, and dopamine, two hormones associated with mood regulation.7
It also has the potential to improve your sleep and give your self-esteem a little boost, helping you combat those winter blues in more ways than one.
Every little bit counts, so whether it’s a 15-minute walk outside, an indoor treadmill, or something more demanding, you’re on the way to finding a routine that works!
Handpicked article: How to exercise indoors
Bring light into your life (and feel less sleepy)
A lack of light can affect our circadian rhythm, an internal clock in our brain that operates in a 24-hour cycle.
It responds to light and dark and regulates our sense of alertness and sleepiness.8
With the interruption to the cycle in winter months due to changes in night and day, this can throw a person’s rhythm off balance, resulting in low moods, and in severe cases, depression.
To help bring your rhythm back to normal, there are a few things to try. Sit by a window for a little while or take a short walk during the day to reconnect with natural light.
You could even try light therapy – a promising approach for those with SAD9 – and invest in an artificial light box or dawn simulator, a device that gradually brightens your bedroom, similar to the sunrise.
Spend time with friends
It’s extremely important to keep the good times going and live like it’s a different season.
Spending time with your friends can help relieve stress, give you a sense of belonging and improve your well-being.
Meet them for a coffee, movie or lunch, talk to them on the phone or do something together online, if you need to strike that balance between alone time and social interaction.
Bring that fun – and sense of normalcy – back to remind you how great life can be.
Talk to someone you trust
When feeling down, it’s easy to keep feelings hidden from those who care. Keyword here: care.
Technology has made it a lot easier to reach out if finding your voice is difficult, so even a direct message on social media and text can help, or a phone call, if you’re feeling brave enough.
Tell someone how you’re feeling and get the support you need.
Plan your next adventure
We all feel good when we have something to plan and look forward to, and sometimes the simplest things make the best solutions.
Feel free to dream of those crashing waves, and the feeling of sand between your toes. Sipping a foamy latte at a warm café, watching people pass by.
There’s a reason people often plan their holidays in winter.
Eat good, feel good (and increase energy levels)
A diet rich in nutrients can help boost your mood and energy levels, maintain your weight and keep you from giving in to those tempting sugar cravings.
Include plenty of protein, fresh fruit and vegetables – especially those rich in vitamin D, such as oily fish, egg yolks and red meat.10
Vitamin D supplements are also an option for vegans and vegetarians.
Maintain a sleep routine (and wake feeling rested)
As we’ve said, the winter months can throw our 24-hour cycle out of whack.
That makes our sleep routine tougher than usual to maintain, but there are ways you can get back into the (circadian) rhythm and beat winter tiredness.
Follow a routine that encourages rest at bedtime, such as drinking soothing tea, playing soft music or relaxing sounds, and turning the lights down low.
Make sure your room is kept at a comfortable temperature and stay away from anything that may overstimulate your senses, including electronics.
Lastly, try to go to sleep and wake up around the same time – and make sure you have some light (natural or artificial) to greet you when you do!
Combat your stress
The winter sadness may be fighting, but you can fight back harder!
Discover ways to overcome the stress nipping at your heels. Make a list of stress sources so you can avoid them or adapt by developing strategies, lessening their impact.
Find time to do what you enjoy. Write down how you’re feeling and what you’re looking forward to once winter ends, working as an outlet and a visual guide to future happiness.
You can even try a form of relaxation exercises, such as yoga or meditation. Show that stress who’s boss!
Handpicked article: Daily techniques to combat stress
Seek professional help
If you’re struggling and strategies alone aren’t enough to pull you out of the winter blues, talk to a professional and find a way forward while also remembering to be kind to yourself.
- Exercise releases endorphins which help you feel more positive and may promote a more restful night’s sleep.
- Soak up as much sunlight as you can, whether it’s going for a walk or testing out an artificial light box.
- Distract yourself from feeling low with a catch-up, whether in person or online, and you might find your mood naturally improving.
- Sharing how you feel with someone close can help lessen the effects of SAD as you know there’s someone who understands.
- Make plans: Having something to look forward to can help elevate your mood.
- A balanced diet gives you the nutrients you need to look and feel better throughout the winter, plus it gives your body the energy it needs.
- A consistent sleep routine can help to keep you feeling rested and more able to deal with lower moods.
- Avoiding situations that cause high stress may help to reduce the effects of SAD.
- If the symptoms of SAD are especially severe, such as suicidal thoughts, reaching out to a professional is recommended.
Beating winter blues: The summary
There you have it—all you need to know about winter blues and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), two afflictions that are often confused as they both may affect your mood during the colder, darker months.
However, SAD has much more significant effects on daily life, which is why we’ve armed you with ways to lift your mood and beat winter tiredness at the same time.
If you’d like further reading material to prepare yourself for a more cosy, cheerful winter, read “How to love the darker nights,” “Winter Wellness: How to look and feel great this winter,” and “5 tips for staying healthy during the festive season.”
You also asked...
The winter blues are usually mild and short-term, lasting for as a little as a few weeks or sporadically.
If the symptoms worsen – resulting in a severe disruption to your life, responsibilities, and relationships – there may be a chance it’s developed into Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
SAD can happen when the seasons change, most notably from autumn into winter. It is considered a sub-type of depression, with similarities between the two conditions.
The main difference is that these symptoms are limited to a similar time each year over a period of years.
Is it the same as winter depression and sadness?
The key difference is length, severity, and level of disruption to your life.
Winter blues are a mild form of seasonal unrest, whereas Seasonal Affective Disorder – also known as winter sadness or depression – is an elevated form of the winter blues.
Some people may also use the different names interchangeably to describe their low moods, which may make diagnosis trickier.
The advice in this article is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP or healthcare professional before trying any supplements, treatments or remedies. Food supplements must not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle.
Last updated: 24 November 2021