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How to cope if you're suffering from SAD this winter, from lifestyle changes to light boxes

Woman experiencing SAD, pictured inside house during winter. (Getty Images)
SAD often leads to feelings of depression. (Getty Images)

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) affects many of us during the winter months. The common condition is characterised by a significant drop in mood, lack of energy, sadness and sleepiness during colder and darker days.

It's thought to be triggered by a lack of daylight, with the eye failing to send effective 'wake up' messages to the brain, due to low light levels.

Currently, it's estimated that SAD affects around two million people in the UK.

Read more: Talking mental health: What to say when someone's struggling, according to experts

Man struggling to sleep at night. (Getty Images)
Symptoms of SAD include sleep disturbances and exhaustion. (Getty Images)

"Many of us may experience a lack of energy, low mood and change in sleeping patterns during the winter – especially after the clocks change. If these changes interfere with your everyday life you may have seasonal affective disorder," explains Fatmata Kamara, mental health nurse adviser at Bupa UK.

"SAD is often confused with periods of low mood or energy that many experience solely during the winter months – also known as ‘winter blues’", she explains, "but SAD is linked to reduced hours of sunlight in the shorter and darker winter months."

This can affect your body’s internal clock, disrupting your usual sleep pattern.

"Reduced sunlight has also been linked to a drop in serotonin levels (a hormone that stabilises mood and wellbeing) and an increase in melatonin (a hormone which regulates sleep cycles)," adds Kamara. "Changes to these hormones can also trigger feelings of depression."

Read more: When the clocks change in the UK - and how Coldplay's Chris Martin is involved

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) symptoms

Man working late at office. (Getty Images)
Long hours at your desk can mean you rarely see daylight. (Getty Images)

"Symptoms of SAD are similar to other forms of depression," adds Kamara. "You may feel your overall wellbeing and mood is low and you lose interest in your usual activities. You may also find yourself lacking energy, struggling to sleep or a loss of appetite.

"Some people who suffer from SAD also experience physical symptoms such as headaches, heart palpitations and aches and pains."

The full list of symptoms, according to the NHS, include:

  • persistent low mood

  • loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities

  • irritability

  • feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness

  • feeling lethargic (lacking in energy) and sleepy during the day

  • sleeping for longer than normal and finding it hard to get up in the morning

  • craving carbs and gaining weight

  • difficulty concentrating

  • decreased sex drive

How to help Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Enjoy natural sunlight during the day

It's wise to soak up all that we do have from the great outdoors during winter.

"If the lack of daylight hours are affecting your mood, try to make the most of them and get outside when you can. Even on a cloudy day, getting outside will help your body to get the light it’s craving," says Kamara.

That's because SAD is not so much about vitamin D, which we only get from sunshine, but daylight, regardless of if it's sunny or not.

"Whether it’s a morning or lunchtime walk, wrap up warm and get outside in the fresh air to help boost your mood," she urges.

Woman walking her dog during a winter evening. (Getty Images)
Even if the light is fading, a walk outdoors will help your mood. (Getty Images)

Use SAD lamps to brighten your environment

If you work from home, your first port of all is to try to bring the light inside.

"If you work indoors, whether from home or in the office, make an effort to let in as much sunlight into your working environment as you can. Open any curtains or blinds and sit by a window," says Kamara.

But, if that fails and it's simply too grey outside, you can also invest in a SAD lamp, which replicates daylight. Sitting by it for around 30 minutes each morning can make a significant difference to mood, and help you start the day.

Light therapy lamps can help symptoms of SAD
Light therapy lamps can help symptoms of SAD. (Amazon)

£29.99 at Amazon

"These lights which mimic the sun, are thought to boost levels of serotonin and melatonin," explains Kamara.

"Evidence around light-therapy is still not 100% conclusive, but it does look as though it can deliver positive short-term effects. This means it could be a helpful way to banish the winter blues until the days start getting longer."

Read more: Men and depression: How to spot the signs and address it

SAD lamps, or light boxes, can come in many different forms, including desk lamps and well-mounted fixtures. You might also find sunrise alarm clocks, which gradually light up your bedroom to help you wake up, useful too.

The good news is that most sunlamps contain UV filters, meaning they’re not harmful in the same way that sunlight can be. The intensity of light is measured in 'lux' – so if a product has a high lux, that means it'll be pretty bright.

SAD lamps can boost levels of serotonin and melatonin.
SAD lamps can boost levels of serotonin and melatonin. (Amazon)

£36.99 £24.99 at Amazon

Read more: What is a 'SAD' or 'sunlight' lamp?

While most people can use them safely, it might not be suitable if you have an eye condition or eye damage that makes your eyes particularly sensitive to light, or are taking medication that increases your sensitivity – speak to your GP if you're not sure.

Make sure you also read up on what different light boxes are for, whether it's medically approved for treating SAD, the intensity you should be using, and the amount of time for. Of course, those who just generally need a little extra help with mornings and dark days can benefit too.

Man using daylight therapy lamp, or SAD lamp. (Getty Images)
A daylight therapy lamp can make a big difference. (Getty Images)

Eat well

You can help to regulate mood by choosing a healthy diet. "A balanced diet helps to look after your physical and your mental health," says Kamara. "Your body is likely to be craving sugary foods, so try to balance your diet with things like pasta, oats, cereals, nuts and seeds which help to release energy slowly.

"It’s important to make sure you’re getting all the proper nutrients and vitamins and foods rich in vitamin D and omega-3, such as oily fish, can help to improve mood."

Taking fish oil, iron tablets and a multivitamin may help, too.

Read more: Seasonal superfoods to give your immune system a boost this autumn

Young woman sitting at the bed with cup of tea and looking through the window
Winter months can increase feelings of depression through SAD. (Getty Images)

Exercise

David Brudö, CEO and co-founder of mental wellbeing and self-development platform, Remente, says, "Even if it might seem impossible to get outdoors to exercise when it’s cold and rainy, a regular exercise routine can make you feel significantly better, as exercising produces endorphins, leaving us feeling happier, and improving things such as quality of sleep."

But, with it harder to get motivated in winter, we can adapt this to suit us.

"If a run outside is too much, then why not book in some classes at the gym, or even exercise from the comfort of home?," he suggests.

The joy of Youtube and fitness apps means there's always an exercise class or routine on tap. Try yoga for mental strength and energy, or a HIIT routine for a fast burst of endorphins.

Young woman running outdoors in a city park on a cold fall or winter day. (Getty Images)
Running is proven to lift mood – or if not, exercise in the living room. (Getty Images)

Sort your sleep

Going to bed and getting up at the same time each day can help you stay balanced, says Brudö.

"Practising 'sleep hygiene' will leave you feeling happier and make you more productive on a day-to-day basis, so try to go to bed and wake up at the same time that you normally would throughout the year," he explains.

"If you have a hard time unwinding, try a short meditation session before bed."

Read more: How much sleep you need at different ages, from childhood to the later years

Other sleep hygiene tips include saying goodbye to technology an hour before hitting the hay, avoiding stimulants like coffee late in the day, and only using your bed for sleep.

If none of the above suggestions help, however, it's important that you see your GP and get a proper diagnosis and a treatment plan.

To find out more about treatments for SAD, see the NHS website.

For support and to speak to someone about how you are feeling, call the Samaritans free on 116 123 or visit its website.

Watch: Seasonal Depression in kids: Does your child have seasonal affective disorder?