Seasonal Affective Disorder: What is it and how can you treat it?


The Winter Blues. Sounds like the name of a 70’s folk band but alas, no… It’s the deceptively-cute nickname some give to what doctors call ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder‘, or S.A.D. This is something of an aptonym, of course, because sad is exactly what many people suddenly and inexplicably feel with the arrival of winter…

Winter is Coming
As you must know, at 2am on the last Sunday in October, the clocks “go back” in the U.K. by exactly one hour. This act seems like an old one but, in fact, it’s a very modern idea.

Why Do It?
In 1907, a man known as William Willett wrote a leaflet proposing that there was a waste of daylight in the U.K.’s summer mornings… In short, the country’s use of time was inefficient, said Willett. He then made a case for the idea of “daylight-saving” – seasonal changes to the clock. In 1916 – about a year after Willett died – Germany took on the scheme, with the U.K. following suit weeks later. Its benefits remain the subject of debate, however.

So What?
So why are we telling you this? Simply so that there’s a context in which to make sense of it all! Back in 1916, there was a pretty strong argument to be made for the changes. On top of that, no one gave serious thought to the idea that it might somehow contribute to a period of low mood.

What is S.A.D.?
No one fully understands what causes Seasonal Affective Disorder, although there are some pretty safe bets… Many scientists link the more common form of it to a lack of sunlight during the autumn and winter days.

Why Would That Be?
There are a number of reasons. Sunlight is a vital ingredient in our chemical make-up… With too-little sunlight, part of your brain – the hypothalamus – doesn’t work effectively. There’s a chance that this affects a number of things…

Production of Melatonin
Melatonin is a hormone. It makes you feel tired: simple as that. Those coping with S.A.D. may find that the body is producing too much melatonin at the wrong time of day.

Production of Serotonin
This is another hormone; it has a profound affect on your mood, your appetite and your sleep. When our bodies don’t get enough sunlight, it affects our serotonin levels.

The Circadian Rhythm
What the hell is a circadian rhythm?! Simply put, it’s the posh name for your internal body clock. Your body needs sunlight to tell it when it’s time to wake up and go to sleep… Pretty basic functions!

Inevitably, there are people that propose that it’s all in the genes. Some cases do appear to run in families.

Basic Needs
There are those that suggest that how we alter our lifestyles to accommodate winter may, in fact, bring on a period of low mood in and of itself. How come? It’s because when we change our habits and routines, we may unwittingly stop meeting some of our Psychological Basic Needs. This is a massively important area of health, and we deal with it in depth here:

Find Out More
We went into a little detail about the possible causes of S.A.D. since – obviously – if you’re melatonin deficient, then boosting your serotonin isn’t the answer. Keep in mind that you’re not alone. As well as considering the information on this sheet, speak with your GP to discuss what might help.

What Can You Do?

First off…
…if you’ve been experiencing thoughts of suicide or self harm, call the Samaritans on 116 123. Do that now. You can come back to this sheet later. Call them first, and talk to them. Also, if you’re concerned that a low mood may be life-changing, get a copy of our Cycle of Depression Info Sheet via – it’s free and easy to read.

…keep in mind, if your mood is affected by season, the importance of natural light. Get as much of it as you can during the day. Just a short walk at lunchtime makes a difference. If you can’t get out in the daylight, at least sit near a window while indoors.

One could argue that the ever-increasing speed of life now contributes to most forms of depression… As well as a lack of sunshine, the list of things that can contribute to low-serotonin levels includes poor sleep, too little exercise, poor diet, anxiety and stress.

Sleep Well
While the relationship between sleep and serotonin is a complicated one, sleep – as we discuss in numerous Info Sheets – is vital to your well being. If this is an area of concern, check out

Exercise Often
Various studies show that you can increase the production and release of serotonin through regular exercise. In particular, aerobic exercise – such as running, swimming and cycling – is effective. This is all the more true if the exercise is outdoors and in daylight, of course. It’s worth noting that yoga and Pilates also work. Learn more about these exercises here: and
Also, if you’re one of the many people that believes they don’t have time for exercise, be sure to read these three sheets: , and

It’s of great interest to us that studies show getting a massage also increases serotonin levels. While most people know that physical contact with others can be of benefit, few seem to be aware that a massage can literally change your mood. Discover how to get more from a massage here, To find out more about serotonin, get a copy of our Cycle of Depression Info Sheet via [email protected] – it’s free and easy to read.

Reduce Screen Time
A lot of modern devices – such as many televisions, mobile phones, pads and tablets – emit what’s known as ‘blue light’. Studies show that some blue-light frequencies suppress melatonin production, and significantly contribute to sleeplessness. This is why watching T.V., and working or playing on phones and tablets as it gets dark, is SO bad for sleep.

Melatonin Production
Melatonin production can be adversely affected by getting too-little natural light during the day… And by getting too much light at night – especially blue light. But that’s not all! Aging, shift work, smoking and stress all have an affect on melatonin production. If you find yourself with stress or anxiety, you can bet this is a contributing factor to feelings of low mood regardless of the time of year.

Blue Light and Natural Rhythm
We spoke earlier about a natural cycle in our bodies; the circadian rhythm. At night, some blue light negatively affects this rhythm, which can have an affect on the cardiovascular, metabolic and immune systems. An ‘off’ circadian rhythm is known to disturb mood and impair cognitive ability. For all these reasons and more, it’s advised that you put down your phones, tablets, and all light-emitting technology when it gets dark outside. Read more about it here:

Weighted Blankets
Another way to boost melatonin, serotonin and dopamine levels is with a weighted blanket. Seemingly increasing in popularity, these put extra weight on you as you sleep. Now… How the hell could that help anybody?! Well, some people find it soothes their nervous systems and helps regulate the production of hormones.

Light Therapy
Finally, while we have no experience with them ourselves, we do know that you can buy special ‘light boxes’ that simulate exposure to sunlight. Some people swear by them; they spend a little time basking in the light of these lamps during the day… This helps their bodies to better regulate their serotonin and melatonin levels.

When you’re researching these Light Therapy Lamps, be absolutely sure that you’re looking for a S.A.D. Light, specifically. There are a LOT of bulbs and lamps that simulate daylight, but few that claim to have medical benefits.

Back in Shape cannot accept responsibility for the consequences of any action or inaction based on its Info Sheets. If you have any doubts or concerns over medical and health issues, our best advice is always to pop in to see us, visit your GP or call NHS Direct on 111 to discuss your health.