As many as 90% of us report a decrease in energy and lower mood in the winter. Generally, we assume that this is due to the decrease in light and the gloomier days getting us down. This is commonly referred to as the ‘winter depression’ or ‘winter blues’. In fact, for some, the impact of change of the season is so severe that it leads to a debilitating depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which often occurs in the winter.
Given that we automatically associate the changes in our mood with the changes in the seasons, we presume there is nothing we can do about feeling down in the winter. However, we now understand that the changes in light only account for about 10% of our gloomy reaction to the darker days. This leaves the other 90% down to our habitual lifestyle, psychological and social changes in reaction to the colder, darker days. Therefore, by understanding what is happening in your body and how you are responding to the winter, it is possible to fight back against the winter blues.
How does the winter blues affect us long term?
Starting with light, our body clocks and internal rhythms are tuned to the planet through the natural cycle of day and light. Thus, on a physiological level over the long term, we have internal adjustment for the seasons through a change in light exposure, driving the circadian cycle. This would transfer to an increase desire to sleep in the winter.
Chinese medicine draws on the famous Yin and Yang to develop an interesting philosophy on the seasons – winter being the time a dark, slow, cold and an inward energy cycle occurs, forcing a reflection of the self. Here we would naturally observe that in winter as the days get shorter, we may feel like going to bed earlier and sleeping later because our body is signalling to us its need to heal and repair.
What about in the short term?
Research has also shown that light affects our mood in the short term. The blue light of the morning sun is uplifting, improving our mood and alertness. However, winter and the darkness often leads to habitual, social and psychological changes, which can be more important than the impact of the decrease in light. How we respond to the winter is what gets us down. For example, with the colder and darker mornings, we want to stay in bed longer, which has an effect on our mood. We exercise less and increase our consumption of ‘comfort food’ both of which affect our mood and energy. In addition, in the darker evenings we do not want to socialise and stay out, thus isolating ourselves more. Therefore, if we tackle the winter fully we can change our outlook and vitality.
If you feel low in the winter try these simple changes…
1) Get sunlight – for at least 10 to 15 minutes every day, preferably 30 minutes
Sunlight boosts our mood, improves sleep and promotes vitamin D production. Blue light affects us emotionally – sunlight cheers us up. If you cannot get out in the morning, get outside during your lunch hour.
2) Exercise as much as possible
Exercise lifts our mood by producing endorphins, our feel good hormones. There is also growing evidence that exercise boosts Serotonin (a key neurotransmitter in the brain) production and release, especially aerobic exercise such as running and cycling.
3) Eat foods, which boost your serotonin levels
Foods such as poultry, avocados, bananas, cottage cheese, walnuts, soy protein, tomatoes, sunflower seeds and brown rice. Also, try starchy carbohydrates such as bread, pasta and potatoes.
4) Eat foods, which contain Vitamin D
Eat oily fish, tofu, eggs and mushrooms. If you are feeling especially low, see your GP who may prescribe Vitamin D (100,000 IU daily for a short period). This has been shown to improve symptoms of depression.
5) Keep regular hours all throughout the year
This makes it easier to get to sleep, as your brain and hormones respond to the habituation. Keeping a consistent routine has been shown to improve your mood.
6) Don’t keep the heat high before bedtime
If you use the heating at night, the temperature may prevent you getting into deep sleep, as we need a cool bedroom for a comfortable night’s sleep. So, make sure you don’t keep the heat on full blast.
7) Keep a container of water near your heater to create humidity
If you feel the indoor air is dry in the bedroom it can affect our mucous membranes in our nose and throat, which dry out, making us more vulnerable to cold, flu and even viral infections. This also often leads us to mouth breathing at night, which disturbs our sleep.
In air that is more humid, droplets pick up the microbes in the air and fall to the ground, rather than entering us in the night. Put a container of water near your source of heat to increase the humidity.
8) Try a sunlamp as your alarm
If you are feeling especially low this winter, a sunlamp used as an alarm in the mornings may be something worth trying. Lumie make great ones.
9) Try a Dyson Air Purifier
Consider getting a Dyson hot and cool, as it both purifies the air and regulates the temperature with a night dimmer and timer too.
10) Avoid the Winter cravings
Foods such as sweet carbs, they can keep you awake, and the resulting lack of sleep affects your mood.