With the clocks going back this Sunday, experts explain how to avoid the 'winter blues'

Leaving the office when its already dark leaves many winter workers feeling blue.

With the clocks going back an hour this Sunday in the UK, the days are set to get even shorter.

While many complain about the gloomy weather, for some the dark days trigger seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of depression.

To help you stay upbeat throughout the winter months, experts explain what SAD is and how to prevent it.

Girl sitting on a bench and having a tough time
Seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression that comes about due to a change in the weather. [Photo: Getty}
Woman sitting by light therapy box
Light boxes may help, however, the NHS does not cover them due to a lack of evidence. [Photo: Getty]

“Lots of us are affected by changes in seasons,” Stephen Buckley, head of information at Mind, said, ‘We might feel more cheerful and energetic when the sun is shining and the days are longer, and eat more or sleep longer in the winter.

“But, for those with SAD, these seasonal changes have a much greater effect on mood and energy levels, leading to symptoms of depression that have a major impact on day-to-day life.”

One in six people in the UK battle depression at some point in their life, according to Mr Buckley.

In 2017 alone, 17.3 million adults (7.1%) in the US experienced at least one major depressive episode, National Institute of Mental Health statistics show.

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“SAD is a type of depression, though one that is experienced more at particular times of the year,” Mr Buckley said.

“Someone who experiences other mental health problems alongside SAD may find they also become more difficult to cope with as the seasons change.”

SAD causes the “normal” depressive symptoms. These include feeling persistently sad, teary, guilty or hopeless. Many also lose interest in activities they used to enjoy, and avoid socialising or having sex.

Low energy, an inability to concentrate, and changes to sleep patterns and appetite are also common.

In severe cases, some even hurt themselves or consider suicide.

Exactly how SAD comes about is unclear, with some blaming a lack of light.

When light hits the back of the eye, messages are sent to the part of the brain that controls mood, Mind reports. Some people may need more light than others, with gloomy rays triggering symptoms.

For others, the opposite is true, with bright light being hard to cope with. SAD is most often linked to dark, dull days, however, hot, sunny weather can leave some “uncomfortable”, Mr Buckley said.

Dark days may also disrupt our body clock or cause the hormone melatonin to be overproduced. Melatonin “tells” the body it’s time for bed, with SAD sufferers having higher levels during winter.

“During the night, the brain produces melatonin which contributes to making us feel drowsy and induces sleep,” Dr Natasha Bijlani, consultant psychiatrist at the Priory’s Roehampton hospital, said.

“At daybreak, the effect of bright light, coupled with the natural rhythm of the brain, suppresses melatonin.

“In those susceptible to SAD, not enough light, on dull winter days, may lead to the development of symptoms of SAD.”

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Winter is also synonymous with Christmas. While the festive season is a joyful time for many, lonely people may feel left out of the celebrations. It can also drive home the loss of a loved one or leave people worrying how they will afford to buy presents for their relatives.

How to overcome SAD

To combat the condition, Mind recommends SAD sufferers get outside as much as possible.

“It can help to spend as much time as you can in natural light, for example going for walks, spending time in parks or gardens, or simply sitting near a window,” Mr Buckley said.

“Going on holiday somewhere sunnier can sometimes be helpful, although it’s possible you might find things more difficult on your return because of the sudden contrast.”

Exercising outside could also help to release feel-good chemicals called endorphins.

“This could mean anything from going for a countryside run to spending a few hours gardening,” Mr Buckley said.

“Research shows physical activity can be as effective as antidepressants in treating mild-to-moderate depression.

“A balanced diet is also important. Common SAD cravings for carbohydrates, such as pasta and potatoes, should be balanced with fruit and vegetables.”

Preparing and freezing meals in advance may also come handy if SAD leaves you too tired to cook. And getting organised in plenty of time for Christmas may keep you mentally strong when the festive chaos sets in.

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If work or family demands make getting outside difficult, a light box that emits strong white or blue light can be effective, according to Mind. Light therapy is not available on the NHS due to a lack of evidence.

Dr Bijlani claims, however, it helps in up to 85% of cases.

“People with SAD sometimes need four hours a day of special bright light at 10 times the intensity of ordinary lighting,” she said.

“It’s a very simple treatment, but when used regularly throughout the winter months can take away the worst of the feelings.”

For hundreds of years, people have turned to the herbal remedy St John’s Wort to boost their mood, especially during winter.

Research suggests it may be as effective as antidepressants in mild-to-moderate cases, Mind reports. However, it can render the contraceptive pill or implant ineffective. It also can make skin more sensitive. As a result, light therapy may be too strong.

As with depression at any other time of year, Mind recommends patients confide in a loved one or get professional support, if necessary.

“Some people find supplements for vitamin D or vitamin B12 are useful alongside other steps,” Mr Buckley said. “If you think you might have a vitamin deficiency, you should talk to your GP.”

If “self-care” fails to boost your mood, your GP may recommend antidepressants.

“For some exercising, eating healthily and getting out in the fresh air can be enough to maintain their mental wellbeing during the winter months, however, for others these steps are not sufficient,” Mr Buckley said. “Those who are concerned should not hesitate to seek professional help.

“Many people find medication like antidepressants can be beneficial, but they don’t work for everyone and come with potential adverse side effects.”

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), the go-to antidepressants for SAD, can take up to six weeks to have an effect.

Side effects can include feeling agitated, shaky or anxious, as well as having diarrhoea or constipation, according to the NHS.