Is the winter blues real?

Struggling to get out of bed this winter? Here's what you need to know about the so-called 'winter blues' and our top tips to boost your mood

Written by Editor Medibank
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Finding it hard to tear yourself out of bed on these frosty winter mornings? Or are the grey skies and being cooped up inside all day making you feel out of sorts?

You may have heard of ‘a case of the winter blues’ being bandied around this time of year, but what does it actually mean?

Despite the popularity of the term, there’s no research-based evidence that the ‘winter blues’ is real. However, it’s also not unusual to be fighting off the urge to hibernate when July rolls around. Perhaps it’s feeling a bit unmotivated, extra sleepy, or craving comfort food. It’s helpful to know some simple, mood-boosting lifestyle changes you can make between now and spring, and the signs to look out for when winter sadness may be getting more serious.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

Although rarely diagnosed in Australia, a condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) does exist. SAD is more common in areas of the northern hemisphere where shorter days and longer periods of darkness can result in seasonal depression.

In most cases, SAD is diagnosed after a person has experienced the same symptoms over two or more winters. Once winter passes, the symptoms go away.

What are the symptoms of SAD?

Symptoms usually start out mild and worsen as the season progresses. These may include:

  • Lack of energy
  • Sleeping too much
  • Finding it hard to wake up in the morning
  • Feeling very tired all the time
  • Overeating and craving carbohydrates
  • Gaining weight
  • Losing interest in normal activities

Interestingly, three-quarters of those affected in the northern hemisphere are women1 and SAD can also occur in the warmer months. The general symptoms in spring and summer are different to those experienced in winter, and may include trouble sleeping, not feeling hungry, losing weight or feeling agitated and anxious.

What causes SAD?

The specific cause of SAD remains unknown. Research on the mood disorder has explored how reduced exposure to sunlight in winter disrupts the body’s natural circadian rhythm, also known as our internal ‘body clock’2. During the colder months, we generally spend more time indoors absorbing less sunlight which means our bodies produce excess melatonin, a hormone that can make you feel sleepy) and less serotonin (a hormone that regulates your mood), which have both been linked to the symptoms of SAD.

What is Serotonin?

Serotonin is a chemical that has several important jobs within the body. It’s a natural mood stabiliser that controls wellbeing and happiness. Not having enough serotonin is thought to contribute to depression.

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Whether you’re unsure of what you’re feeling, looking out for a family member, or you simply need to hear another voice, we’re here to advise, guide and support you through your mental health journey.

How to boost your mood in winter

Stay physically active

Exercise can have an enormous impact on your mood. In fact, it’s thought that exercise can be just as effective as anti-depressants in treating mild-to-moderate depression. Exercise can help to ease depression by increasing serotonin which helps to regulate your mood, sleep patterns and appetite, and produces endorphins for the perfect natural energy boost on a dreary winter’s day. A yoga class, swimming laps at your nearest indoor pool, or stretching at home is an excellent way to move your body when it’s too cold or wet to head outside.

Chase the sunshine

If the sky is clear, find a friend or pop on your headphones, roll up your sleeves and head out for a brisk walk to top up on winter sunshine and boost your serotonin levels. Like sunlight, daily exercise assists the body’s natural production of vitamin D. If the weather allows, pottering in the garden or riding your bike to work is also a great way to catch some extra sunlight during the winter months. To check UV levels and when sun protection should be used, visit the Bureau of Meteorology website or download Cancer Council's free SunSmart app on your phone.

Try guided meditation

Trying to meditate is a lot like trying to sleep – attempting to force it can often make it harder. Instead, think of meditation as a few moments to yourself to refocus or unwind, rather than a discipline you have to master. There’s some wonderful free self-care tools out there including Smiling Mind’s app, offering guided meditation and mindfulness programs for people of all ages. Specially designed by psychologists, whether at home or on-the-go, it’s 10 minutes well spent when you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, anxious or low on energy.

Take a break from alcohol

It's not realistic for most of us to give up drinking for good. However, limiting alcohol to one or two standard drinks a day, or having a handful of alcohol-free days each week is a great place to start. Cutting out alcohol completely for a full month (think Dry July) can be a great way to pause, notice how much you're drinking and how it's impacting your mood, and reset your habits. The benefits of a break from drinking include more energy and productivity, better sleep, and importantly, no hangovers! Reclaim your Sunday and you’ll quickly feel the mental and physical benefits of a rest from alcohol.

Cook up a healthy feast at home

Food for thought: Recent studies have found that a balanced diet may help to prevent and improve the symptoms of depression3. Rainy days at home are a good excuse to break out your cookbooks or test out that new healthy recipe you saved in your phone with good intentions. Then add some hearty complex carbohydrates (like green vegetables, wholegrains and beans) to your plate. Packed with soluble fibre, these winter staples slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream and increase serotonin levels, helping to boost your mood. Turn up your favourite music and get cooking!

Set your clock

Sleeplessness and mood disorders are closely linked, so making sleep hygiene a priority is essential to feeling your best. ‘Sleep hygiene’ simply means habits that help you have a good night’s sleep. For example, don’t ignore tiredness. Go to bed when your body tells you it’s ready and try to aim for 7–9 hours of sleep per night. Hitting snooze is never more tempting than when it’s cold and rainy, however getting up at the same time each morning will increase your exposure to beneficial sunlight during the early waking hours. Soon this strict routine will help to ‘set’ your body clock and you’ll feel more energised throughout the day and get sleepy at about the same time every night.

When to ask for help

In Australia, it’s estimated 45% of us will experience a mental health condition in our lifetime4, and it's completely normal to have some days when you feel down. Most moods pass within a day or so. And, even in a flat mood, you can generally still go about your daily activities. But if down or dark moods are significantly disrupting your life, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Importantly, depression, as well as the symptoms of SAD, can have many causes. Your GP can offer support and advice about any symptoms you may be experiencing and provide guidance on possible treatment options that are best suited to you.

If you're concerned your friend or loved one's low moods could be a sign of a mental health condition, start the conversation by asking 'Are you okay?'.

Help when you need it

  • Medibank’s round-the-clock Mental Health Phone Support is available for members with hospital cover. Our team of qualified mental health professionals are ready to provide support and advice 24 hours a day, seven days a week on 1800 644 325.
  • beyondblue offers info and advice about depression and other issues, as well as an online live chat. You can also call and speak to someone 24 hours a day on 1300 224 636.
  • Lifeline is a crisis support and suicide prevention service with an online live chat. You can also call them 24 hours a day on 13 11 14.

1 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4673349/

2 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4673349/

3 https://www.thewomens.org.au/health-information/periods/healthy-periods/sleep-sunshine-vitamin-d

4 https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/healthyliving/mood-and-food

Written by Editor Medibank

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