SAD or winter blues?

Siski Green / 24 October 2017

Find out if your feelings during the winter months are a result of a disorder or simply a case of the winter blues.

Looking back through photos of summer it’s easy to feel as though you were happier then – eating lunch with friends or family al fresco, pottering around in the garden, perhaps enjoying a day at the beach. Whereas winter means mornings that make getting up to exercise feel like a punishment, afternoons spent bundled up with thick socks and slippers, and worse, dark evenings that don’t encourage you to explore and socialise.

Little wonder then, that for many of us, winter is not as happy a time as summer – in fact 20% of us experience lower energy levels and a general sense of 'feeling down' in winter. But for around 4% people in the UK, winter brings with it something even more severe than cold weather – it brings a type of depression, seasonal affective disorder (SAD). 

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What is SAD?

Researchers believe SAD occurs as a result of less exposure to sunlight, disrupting your biological clock and triggering changes in levels of serotonin, a chemical that you need to feel content and happy.

But new research indicates that although there is a light-related element to it, it doesn’t tell us the whole story.

It seems people with SAD produce less melanopsin, a pigment within the retina of the eye. This pigment is light-sensitive and so plays a role in how much light is absorbed and as a result, how the brain responds to light and darkness. Why do some people produce less melanopsin? Genetics, suggest the researchers. So for these people, the shorter daylight hours has a far more pronounced effect than it does on others.

Lack of sunlight affects the biological clock, upsets the natural balances of chemicals such as serotonin, but also cortisol and adrenalin, all of which are negatively impacted with low sunlight levels.

With some of your most important mood-related chemicals all out of sync, your mind and body is left in an unhappy state that’s difficult to overcome. Thankfully, there are treatments for those with SAD. But the first step is to try and figure out whether what you’ve got is SAD or simply a case of the winter blues. Read on to find out. 

You don’t want to socialise

A desire to stay home and get cosy in front of the TV rather than head out to socialise isn’t necessarily an indicator of SAD – we all tend to get more home-focused in winter. This is perfectly natural. It becomes something more serious when socialising itself – be it in your own home or someone else’s – also seems too much to bear. If you find yourself making excuses to avoid contact with friends and family, it’s a sign that you could be suffering with depression rather than just feeling a bit low. 

How to spot the signs of depression

You’ve got no energy

We all enjoy a duvet day during winter, but if staying in bed feels like a necessity rather than a treat you’re more likely to be experiencing SAD rather than the usual winter-led instinct to hibernate a little. What’s more, staying in bed won’t make you feel good, it will leave you feeling more lethargic and like you want to stay in bed tomorrow and the next day and the next day after that. What's more, you'll feel worried about how much time you're spending in bed, too. 

10 healthy reasons for a winter walk

Your diet fills you with guilt

Enjoying a big plate of pie and mash during winter is nothing to worry about, but if you find yourself comfort eating and piling on pounds – and feeling terrible about it, anxious and guilty – then this could be another symptom of SAD.

During colder months your body naturally craves carbohydrates and even sweet foods as a source of quick energy, but while it’s perfectly okay to enjoy indulging a little every now and again, if your desire for potatoes, bread and pasta feels out of control, it’s something to address.

Feel-good winter root veg

While eating carbs might feel good in the moment, it won’t provide you with the variety of nutrients you need to boost immunity during the winter months and if you put on weight too, it will only add to your anxiety. 

Feeling down? Watch out for weight gain

Treating yourself doesn’t feel like a treat

If the idea of baking yourself some fresh bread or a cake, snuggling under a blanket to listen to music or watch a film doesn’t fill you with warm fuzzies, then you’re likely feeling more than simple winter blues.

10 natural ways to lift your mood

People with SAD can’t simply ‘cheer themselves up’ with a nice cup of tea and a couple of biscuits, or even a more elaborate treat – as with people who have year-round depression, SAD can’t be shaken off or fixed quickly and easily in this way. 

Depression: alternatives to drug treatment

You don’t feel like making plans

When you can’t find the energy to look forward to something in the future, it’s a sign that you’re suffering more than most. For people with SAD it can feel as though there is no light at the end of the tunnel even if they’re aware that what they have will pass come springtime when daylight hours increase. 

Which is why it's all the more important that you seek help to see you through the winter months. See our article on effective treatments for SAD to find out what can help. 

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