Some of us experience a lack of energy and motivation and lethargy for no obvious reason in the winter months. All we want is curl into a ball and hibernate until spring. No activity seems attractive as it is a huge effort to do anything at all. The only thing that cheers us up is a plate of steaming pasta, cake or chocolates. These symptoms might be a sign for the SAD syndrome (Seasonal Affective Disorder, which affects your body clock, mind and mood). It’s time to fight back to regain our zest for life and our spark.
The lack of sunlight in winter produces unfavourable mood altering effects. The prolonged secretion of melatonin in the brain during the winter months makes us sleepy and lethargic. As our physical activity is reduced in winter, the level of endorphins (‘happy hormones’) also goes down. So what can be done to prevent those, who are particularly sensitive to seasonal changes, from slipping into winter depression?
A well-established therapy for SAD syndrome is exposure to full spectrum light. You can get a lamp that imitates the sunlight, plug it in and your eyes will register the increased amount of light. Your hypothalamus begins to readjust your hormones. In fact, even 30 minutes of extra light exposure a day can make all the difference. Another way of shaking off the winter stupor is to get a personalised sunrise – yes, that’s right! You can buy a dawn simulator (aka sunrise alarm clock) which will start working at 6 am while you are still sleeping and by the time your alarm goes off you wake up in a room full of light. The advantage of such an alarm is that your eyes get used to the increasing light intensity gradually and you wake up slowly and more naturally – no abrupt jolts or pounding heartbeat.
As with everything a healthy diet and sports help to keep your body and mind in shape. Apart from boosting your mood by elevating endorphin levels and improving your blood circulation, exercise has many added benefits like weight loss, improved muscle tone, reduced anxiety and blood pressure. The right nutrition is another way to combat the blues. Scientists studying the Inuit people, who have lived for generations in the harsh climate of the Arctic and are exposed to extreme winter conditions, have found out that their wellbeing is directly connected to their diet. The Inuit, like many other cold-climate cultures, eat lots of cold-water oily fish loaded with Omega-3 fatty acids.
Low levels of vitamin D are also linked to SAD. It comes as no surprise that the ‘sunshine vitamin’ made in our skin from cholesterol under the influence of sunlight is low in winter. Unfortunately, there are very few food sources of vitamin D (including oily fish, cod liver oil and egg yolk) and it would be prudent to supplement it if you are prone to SAD. B vitamins support neurological health. Vitamin B3, B6 and folic acid help to manufacture neurotransmitters like serotonin. Brazil nuts, avocados, oats and eggs are all high in B vitamins. B12 is important too, but it’s mainly found in meat, dairy or eggs. If you’re a vegan or vegetarian, you should consider taking a sublingual B12 supplement.
Magnesium is an important mineral for reducing depression and stress. It is plentiful in green leafy vegetables like kale, spinach, spring greens and – hooray! – in dark chocolate. Cocoa is a good source of serotonin, dopamine and phenyl ethylamine, which are three well-studied neurotransmitters that are associated with feelings of wellbeing. Cocoa contains monoamine oxidise inhibitors, which help improve our mood because they allow serotonin and dopamine to remain in the bloodstream longer and circulate in the brain without being broken down. People who have chocolate when they are feeling down are in fact self-medicating. So if you are going to reach out for that chocolate bar, go for 70% or more cocoa content.
Another way of upping your spirits is having a goal or winter project. Set yourself an achievable task, whether it is to clear out your wardrobe, kitchen cupboards or papers in the office, re-decorate a tired looking room in vibrant colours and put up some shelves or pictures. Make your winter surroundings cosy and welcoming.
And last but not least – don’t forget to treat yourself from time to time. A day spa, a massage or aromatherapy session, buying new clothes or a new lipstick can do wonders for your sense of wellbeing. Listen to your favourite music. Music affects us on a deep emotional level and can distract you from gloomy weather or difficult life circumstances and transport you into a different world altogether. If you have the opportunity, why not take a holiday in a hot country where the sunshine is guaranteed? The dose of light and pleasant holiday memories will sustain you through the rest of the winter.
If you want to investigate the SAD syndrome in more depth, read Dr. Norman Rosenthal’s book Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder. It is full of helpful strategies to overcome the winter blues.