Depression: Beating the winter blues


The long nights and short days of winter are still with us and Christmas is a faint memory. Many people report feeling low and lacking energy during January and February. The UK’s National Health Service estimates say that one in fifteen British people has some level of winter depression and that for some people this can be given the diagnosis of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Other symptoms include overeating, a reluctance to go out and join in social events, disturbed sleep patterns and reduced libido.

There are a number of theories about why we get winter blues. Lower levels of natural daylight during the winter months have an effect on our hormone levels, particularly serotonin and melatonin and this affects our body clock and can lead to low mood and lethargy. SAD has some clear links to geography – in our hemisphere the further north we live the less light we have in winter and the further north the country is the higher the likelihood of depression. Studies show younger people, 18-30 year olds, are more likely to get the winter blues and women are three times more likely than men, although some doctors believe that men are less likely to admit to the condition. However, there are things we can do to support ourselves through the winter blues.

Make the most of the daylight and try to get out on bright sunny days. Exercise is also important and a lunch time walk is an excellent way to combat the blues. Most people have to wake up at the same time throughout the year and in winter are waking up in darkness and leaving work in darkness so this may be easier said than done for those with busy jobs and long working hours but finding time for light and exercise in the winter is as important as healthy eating and sleeping well.

Light therapy has been shown to be effective for many SAD sufferers. Exposure to intense light for a period of time each day can help regulate the body clock. however, there are many different specialist light box models and each individual needs to check what they might need. Sunlamps or boxes aren’t suitable.

There is some evidence that indicates that supplements that boost vitamin D intake can be helpful. Talking therapies such as counselling can help and Cognitive Behaviour therapy models can provide support.

It is part of human nature to hunker down in winter, but it is only in recent generations that we have expected ourselves to continue to work at full stretch throughout the year. Working long hours  isn’t the same as being productive, so take stock of how well you work as well as how long you are working for. 

Winter brings lessons for us on how to slow down and to be patient. the light is coming back and as the days lengthen most people start to feel better. Those who have suffered from SAD may experience a sudden short period of hyperactivity before they stabilize, but for others there is a gradual return to feeling normal.