Beat the winter blues
Feel tired, tearful, or grumpy during the winter months? You’re not alone. While research suggests around 3% of people in the UK are diagnosed with full-blown seasonal affective disorder (SAD), there’s also a milder form, which is much more common and can result in low mood. Sub-syndromal SAD, or ‘winter blues’, affects 21% of the population in the UK, explaining why so many of us are left feeling down through the colder months. But what’s the science behind our low moods and what can we do to help ourselves feel better? We asked psychologist Lance Workman, co-author of Evolutionary Psychology: An Introduction, for some advice.
The root cause
One major reason why we might find cold, dark UK winters challenging stems back to our ancestry. ‘Our brains are still wired for the bright sunlight of equatorial Africa, where our ancestors came from,’ explains Workman. ‘Now, not only are we in a colder, darker climate, we’re spending around 93% of our time inside.’
And according to research, our indoor habits can have a direct impact on our mood. ‘There’s evidence daylight affects levels of mood-regulating neurotransmitter serotonin, triggering too much in the summer and too little in the winter,’ says Workman. ‘We think those with SAD react more strongly to those changes in serotonin. Melatonin, the hormone that makes us feel sleepy when it’s dark, is also involved as the shorter days mean we produce more of this in winter.’
Interestingly, it’s not only the amount of daylight you’re exposed to that impacts how you feel. ‘While most evidence suggests the further you are from the equator, the more likely you are to have SAD, some research doesn’t back that up,’ says Workman. ‘I worked on a 2018 study that revealed no significant difference in SAD rates between South Wales and North Cyprus.’
And fascinatingly, you’re likely to feel better in the winter if you have blue eyes. ‘People with blue eyes in both populations demonstrated significantly lower rates of SAD than those with darker eye colouration,’ says Workman. ‘We know blue eye pigment allows more light to reach the retina and this may allow for a greater production of serotonin in winter. Blue eye colouration might have arisen as an adaptation to SAD and general mood variability at northern latitudes.
‘In addition, women are 40% more likely to report SAD and it’s most common in women aged 20-50. It’s possible SAD could be an evolutionary adaptation designed to help women of childbearing age save energy and hold onto weight to produce offspring and help them survive winter, as it encourages you to sleep more and eat high- calorie foods. Whatever the reason, we do know SAD is less likely after menopause.’
Spot the symptoms
But how do you know whether you have SAD, or you’re just having a bad week? ‘Low mood, fatigue, cravings for carbohydrate-rich foods and an urge to isolate are all common symptoms of the winter blues,’ says Workman. ‘If you have full- blown SAD, you may have highly debilitating symptoms that get in the way of everything from work to relationships.’
The key to knowing whether you’re actually affected by SAD could be reflecting on your mood through the summer months. ‘For a diagnosis of SAD, you actually need to have summer symptoms, too, feeling much more upbeat and excitable to the point of having insomnia in summer,’ explains Workman.
Fortunately, there are simple ways to support your mental health if you are affected. ‘The most important is to get outside,’ says Workman. ‘Taking a 30-minute walk three times a week can make a real difference.
And making changes to your dietary habits could help, too. ‘Iceland has lower rates of SAD than might be expected and this may be down to the diet, high in oily fish, which is rich in omega-3 fatty acids. If you don’t eat at least one portion weekly, top up with an omega-3 supplement – try flaxseed, or algae-derived omega-3 if you’re vegan or vegetarian.
‘We should all be taking vitamin D in winter, too – D3 helps with mood,’ says Workman. And try to socialise – SAD encourages isolation but that tends to worsen mood, so see friends and have fun. If you’re still experiencing feelings of sadness, Workman recommends light box therapy. ‘80% of people with SAD report a significant improvement after it, although it takes time.
If these steps don’t help and you’re still experiencing symptoms of depression, see your GP, who may be able to refer you for therapy, or prescribe medication.
Read more: 10 life hacks for a happier winter