After a gloriously warm and sunny summer, the temperatures are dropping, and winter is fast approaching. While some may look forward to the cooler months, many people struggle to adjust to the colder weather, shorter days, and fewer hours of sunshine. A dip in mood is extremely common, with one in four people noticeably feeling a difference in their energy and happiness levels over the winter months. Increased exhaustion, depression, weight gain, sluggishness, and other symptoms are common in the UK from October to April.
While the winter blues are common, they can progress to seasonal affective disorder or SAD, a seasonal depression that can have a serious impact. SAD is triggered by a lack of sunlight that causes a landslide of hormonal issues. When sunlight enters our eyes, it stimulates the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, or the ‘happy hormones’ – a lack of sunshine means less of these hormones. In addition to this, extended hours of darkness results in the brain working overtime to produce melatonin, the hormone that regulates your body clock and sleep patterns and has been linked to depression.
Whether you suffer from the general blues or SAD will depend on many factors, including your geography, genetics, and unique brain chemistry. Regardless of the degree, there are a few ways in which you can help yourself stay healthy and positive over the winter months.
Here are a few suggestions:
1. Recognise the issue
Awareness is the first step in helping yourself. The early stages of SAD can be very subtle and may be difficult to detect. Keep an eye out for a reduction in energy levels and concentration, increased fatigue, the persistent desire to sleep, a withdrawal from work or social engagements, and a consistent craving for sugary and carb-heavy foods. Being aware of these changes will help you to recognise what is happening to you and allow you to actively seek a solution.
2. Get as much light as possible
SAD is triggered by a lack of sunlight, which can be difficult to avoid during the winter. Shorter days mean that many of us arrive at, and leave, work in the dark. Make a conscious effort to spend as much time as you can outdoors in the daylight – even something as simple as walking outdoors for half an hour can make a difference.
Try to introduce light into your home where possible – open all blinds, trim your hedges, clean your windows – do anything you can to welcome more natural light. Additionally, use artificial light to your advantage. Set a bright lamp on to a timer half an hour before you’re meant to wake up, or if you can afford it, invest in a dawn simulator.
3. Exercise regularly
Exercise can be extremely beneficial in improving your mood, concentration and sleep quality. Try and work out outdoors when possible – even a brisk walk is helpful. Or spend a few hours a week in the gym. Classes such as yoga can work wonders in helping to combat depression and reduce anxiety.
4. Eat a balanced diet
When suffering from the blues, we tend to crave sugar and white starches to raise our serotonin levels and give us relief. However, this is only temporary as they release insulin which leads to a drop in blood sugar and a desire for further cravings. This is a vicious cycle, with weight gain and metabolic issues just a couple of the side effects.
For the most part, try and stick to complex carbs such as oats and legumes, plus high-protein foods that will curb sweet cravings.
5. Supplement with vitamins if necessary
We need different vitamins to help our bodies perform its necessary functions. While most vitamins can be obtained in sufficient quantities from a balanced, healthy diet, during the winter months it can sometimes be beneficial to take extra supplements if you are prone to SAD or feeling down.
For example, vitamin D may need to be supplemented. Vitamin D is made by the body by using cholesterol and sunshine – when we do not get enough sunlight, our levels might drop and could contribute towards low moods. Likewise, depression and anxiety might be exacerbated by a B12 deficiency. B12 can be found in foods like beef, salmon, eggs, milk and yogurt, or topped up in supplement form.
Check with your doctor if you think you might have a deficiency or require further advice.
6. Ask for help if it becomes too much
Be aware that there are limits to self-help. If your winter symptoms are seriously impacting your life or feel overwhelming, be sure to contact your doctor.