Gray winter days can be tough mentally and physically. Maybe you feel tired, dull or just really low in energy. Maybe you´re having trouble sleeping or just can't stay away from comfort foods. 

While it’s normal to experience an occasional bout of the winter blues, symptoms like these can also indicate that you suffer from SAD (seasonal affective disorder).  

In this blog post you'll find out how to recognize and fight the symptoms.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder? 

Many people experience some sort of mood shift during the gloomy days of winter. While it´s difficult to find exact global statistics, it is believed that SAD is four times more common in women. 

In our home country Finland it is estimated that about 1% of the population experiences a more severe form of “kaamosmasennus” (Finnish name for winter depression), and about 10-30% of the population experiences some milder symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. 

Considering that there's very little daylight in the Nordic region during winter that's not really surprising. 

Symptoms of SAD include:

  • Feelings of sadness 
  • Lack of energy
  • Fatigue 
  • Lack of focus 
  • Cravings for carbohydrates
  • Feeling less social than usual
  • Difficulty sleeping 

The symptoms can be quite different from person to person. Some people might experience insomnia and have trouble sleeping whereas others might feel tired all the time. 

In case you experience depressive symptoms, it's important to talk to your doctor, especially if they interfere with your function at home, at work, or in your relationships. A proper diagnosis by a medically trained expert is important, as he/she can help you find the right treatment that works for you. 

The good news is that there are many science-based treatments that have been found effective in fighting SAD. 

4 proven strategies to beat winter blues 

1. Get moving! 

Several studies have examined the efficacy of exercise to reduce symptoms of depression, and the overwhelming majority of these studies have described a positive benefit associated with exercise.

Researchers at Harvard University discovered that exercise is as effective as drugs in some cases! Regular light exercise has multiple positive effects on our body. It helps lower blood pressure, improves sleep and promotes heart health. 

But that's not all! Exercise releases feel-good endorphins that trigger a sense of well-being in the brain. 

For this reason: Next time you feel sluggish or moody head out for a walk in nature, head to the gym or do some yoga. You will feel the difference! 

2. Try light therapy

Studies have shown that daily light therapy may help improve mood in 60 to 80% of people with SAD. 

In Finland special light therapy lamps are quite common in households. Many Finns who feel tired during the dark winter months use such lamps in their living and working environment.  Some of these lamps have a timer and simulate dawn making it easier to get up in the morning. 

If you don't have a special light therapy lamp or dawn simulator we recommend finding ways to make your environment brighter. Open blinds and curtains during the day and make sure you have enough bright lighting around your house. 

Try to make the most of the available sunlight by going outside during the day.

3. Stock up on Vitamin D 

It’s believed that vitamin D can help manage the symptoms of SAD. For example, some studies suggest that there's a correlation between lower Vitamin D levels and depression. 

While experts agree that vitamin D is probably just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to mental health, getting your levels checked is definitely a good idea. 

The Finnish Food Authority (Ruokavirasto) writes on their website: “A daily vitamin D supplement is recommended all year round for all those living in Finland.” 

The recommendation is based on science and the fact that people in the Nordics are not likely to get sufficient vitamin D from the sunlight, especially between October and March. 

Besides that, there´s scientific evidence that vitamin D can modulate the innate and adaptive immune responses. Vitamin D is also known to reduce tiredness and fatigue and plays an important role for bone health. Recent studies suggest that vitamin D may reduce the risk of coronavirus complications. 

4. Create social situations 

Nutritious food, light therapy and exercise are a great strategy to fight SAD. But in the midst of a pandemic (and all the challenges that it brings), it's good to remember that we are social creatures as well. 

While many people feel the urge to hunker down and stay home in winter, there's a risk of isolation and loneliness. For this reason experts recommend to schedule social activities on a regular basis. 

If in-person gatherings are not possible due to social distancing and other restrictions, you can still meet people for a walk outside in the fresh air (even when it's chilly!) or schedule regular Zoom calls with family and friends. 

Oftentimes staying connected with your loved ones is the best way to add some sparkle to your day and get energized again.   

Remember: You don't have to suffer alone 

Seasonal affective disorder is quite common, yet many people end up suffering alone. That's unfortunate as there are many helpful tools and treatments available, often inexpensive and natural. 

If symptoms of SAD and they are affecting your life negatively, don´t hesitate talking to your primary care physician.

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