Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – Combatting the Winter Blues

Many people, me included, like to follow the seasonal rhythms and shifts in energy of the Earth and slow down at this time of year, becoming more inward focused and reflective. However, when the nights get longer and the days get shorter around 3% of the UK population actually suffer from a clinical condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD for short) with a further 20% experiencing the milder Subsyndromal SAD, otherwise known as the Winter Blues.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a complex condition that’s triggered by the lack of sunlight in the wintertime which results in reduced synthesis of the hormones melatonin and serotonin in the part of the brain that controls our sleep, appetite and mood.

In the UK, people often experience the effects of SAD from October or November right through until March or April. In its mildest form, SAD manifests itself as the Winter Blues when you may feel generally tired and grumpy. However, more severely, symptoms include insomnia, difficulty waking in the morning, depression, lack of energy, problems concentrating, anxiety, overeating (especially binging on carbs), loss of libido, social and relationship problems and sudden mood changes, with some people being unable function properly on a daily basis and needing to take time off work.

What can I do if I have the Winter Blues or SAD?

Go to the sun

For most of us, the most obvious ‘cure’ for SAD is also the most impossible! Dare to say, if you had the choice you’d like to fly away to the sun for the Winter too, but with work and family commitments, financial constraints and just things you have to do, this is often not possible, but it’s maybe worth considering taking a short holiday to Spain or the Canary Islands in December or January rather than during the Summer.

I like to take a family holiday to the sun around Christmas each year and I always come back feeling healthier, happier and better able to sleep than I did when I went. The sun is essential for our bodies to produce vitamin D, which has an antidepressant effect, explaining why sunlight can make us feel so much happier and more content. Morning sunshine is also responsible for shutting down the production of melatonin in the brain, which makes us drowsy at night, resetting our body clock and making us feel sleepy again at night when it’s dark and time to produce more.

If you can’t get away to the sun, try to get outside as much as you can during the Winter. It may feel like a struggle at times but if you can get up and out it can help you to feel so much better, even if it’s only for short time. Perhaps walk to work in the morning or leave your desk and spend your lunchtime in the park; see what works for you.

Try artificial sunlight

To make up for the lack of natural sunlight, you could ‘supplement’ it with a SAD light box. According to the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association light boxes are effective in 85% of people suffering from the condition and the effects can be seen within around two weeks with just 30 to 60 minutes of exposure to the light box each day.

The warm orange glow of a Himalayan salt lamp can also be very effective in improving your mood, boosting your energy levels and focus and promoting the production of melatonin in the evening to regulate sleep. Conversely, the harsh blue light emitted by screens and gadgets can interfere with your natural circadian rhythm, so making it a rule in your house to switch them off after sunset can be helpful.

Another great option is to install f.lux on your computer which makes the colour of your screen adapt to the time of day; warm at night and like sunlight during the day. So, when the sun goes down, it makes your computer look like your indoor lights, but in the morning, it makes things look like sunlight again, combatting the blue light and helping you sleep better.

Use essential oils

Researchers (Postolache et al 1999) found that people suffering from SAD have an increased sense of smell, especially in the right nostril which corresponds to the right side of the brain, so aromatherapy and the use of essential oils can be particularly effective in alleviating some of the symptoms.

It’s a well known fact that oils can be very useful in enhancing moods with the citrus oils – orange, lemon and bergamot – being especially effective; one of my favourites is wild orange.

Other oils you may want to try include:

  • Black pepper – a stimulating oil that’s useful if you’re feeling fatigued, but steer clear if your anxiety levels are high
  • Grapefruit – an alternative mood enhancing citrus oil
  • Jasmine – a stimulating antidepressant oil that’s useful for promoting concentration and focus
  • Rosemary – helpful if you’re struggling to concentrate
  • Clary sage – a calming antidepressant oil
  • Rose – a calming oil that’s effective if you’re feeling very anxious but don’t use it if you’re extremely tired
  • Sandalwood – a favourite calming oil of the Buddhist monks for its mood and concentration enhancing properties.

Ideally, diffuse your chosen oil or blend for between 30 and 60 minutes, then have a break for around the same period of time, repeating around three times each day. This will help you to get the maximum benefit from the oils and prevent you going ‘nose blind’.

Practice Yoga

Even if you really don’t feel like moving, making the effort to get on your mat can help – a regular Yoga practice can make a huge difference if you suffer from SAD and there are so many yoga poses that you can access from a supine constructive rest position that you really don’t have to move too far if your energy levels are low… You can even do Yoga in bed.

Recent research also suggests that women who suffer from premenstrual syndrome (PMS) are more likely to suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder too – and we all know how useful Yoga is in relieving the symptoms of PMS. It’s thought that Yoga works by promoting the level of serotonin, the wellbeing hormone, in the brain which is one of the hormones that gets depleted as sunshine levels fall in the Winter.

A Restorative Yoga practice for at least 20 minutes each day combined with breathwork (pranayama) can be particularly powerful in alleviating the symptoms of SAD. If you sign up to my newsletter I’ll send you a lovely Restorative Yoga sequence that you can try at home.

“Restorative yoga may look passive from the outside, but it’s very active internally on both subtle and dramatic levels. Our nervous systems are designed to respond to minute fluctuations in our environments. Restorative yoga, combined with breathwork, is a potent tool to recalibrate the nervous system.” – Bo Forbes

Some simple and effective Yoga Poses you might want to try include:

  • Legs Up The Wall (Viparita Karani)
  • Corpse (Savasana)
  • Happy Baby (Ananda Balasana)
  • Cat (Marjariasana)
  • Knee to Chest (Apanasana)
  • Downward Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
  • Child (Balasana)
  • Tree (Vriksasana)
  • Standing Forward Bend (Paschima Uttanasana)

Combining your Yoga practice with Ujjayi breathing (Victorious Breath) or Nadhi Sodhana (alternate nostril breathing) can further calm your mind and nervous system, enhance concentration and focus and reduce tension and stress. And adding Yoga Nidra or a guided meditation to your Savasana can be deeply nourishing and healing.

If you need support with managing Seasonal Affective Disorder or advice and recommendations regarding the use of essential oils, please get in touch.

I specialise in working with women one to one and enjoy being part of their journey of reconnection and self-discovery. I support women to find more balance and harmony in their lives by deepening their inner connection to their own body’s needs, helping them cope pre-conception, with fertility issues, prenatally, postnatally or during times of transition, grief or loss and helping alleviate the symptoms of menstruation, perimenopause or menopause.

Lara Heppell

About Lara Heppell

I use the incredible healing, calming, strengthening and restorative power of yoga to help you find the balance you need, no matter what stage of life you’re at. I couple this with Mizan massage, belly binding, birth preparation and doula services to support you as needed.


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