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Once the festivities of Christmas and New Year have passed, we can often find ourselves yearning for the warmer, longer, lighter days of spring and summer. For many people, these colder months of the year can bring on the winter blues, and in more severe cases, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Approximately 2 million people in the UK are believed to experience a type of seasonal depression or low mood which tends to peak in January and February. The good news is there are steps you can take to alleviate symptoms of the winter blues which we will explore below.
The winter blues describe feelings of low mood, lethargy, fatigue and anxiety which occur during the winter months when there is less natural sunlight and the weather is generally poor. Winter blues are also sometimes referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) which tends to be where symptoms are more severe and your ability to function on a day to day basis is impaired. If you are struggling with the winter blues, you may find it difficult to get out of bed in the morning. You may also have difficulty sleeping and lack motivation to complete daily tasks or go outside.
The exact cause of the winter blues is not fully understood. It is believed to be caused by a combination of factors, including changes in sunlight exposure and the body's internal clock (circadian rhythm). The reduced sunlight during the winter months may disrupt the body's production of certain chemicals, such as serotonin and melatonin, that play a role in mood regulation. Location can also be a factor as the winter blues tend to be more common in places where there are greater variations in weather and daylight hours from one season to the next, which includes the United Kingdom.
Here are some tips for boosting your mood during the winter months:
Even on the gloomiest of winter days, soaking up some natural sunlight (or what little there is) and being out in the fresh air can help improve your mood. Aim to spend at least a few minutes outside each day. If you’re unable to get outdoors, try to spend as much time as possible in the lightest rooms of your home and - when the weather isn’t too cold - open your window and take in deep breaths of fresh air.
Engaging in at least 20 minutes of moderate physical activity every day assists the production of your brain's feel-good neurotransmitters known as endorphins. It also helps you achieve your 150 minutes of exercise a week, as recommended by the NHS. There are many different ways to incorporate exercise into your routine, such as taking a daily walk, joining a gym, going swimming, home workouts or even climbing stairs at a brisk pace!
Eating a nutritious, balanced diet can improve your mood, increase your energy levels and help you maintain a healthy weight in winter when you are most likely to be prone to ‘comfort eating’. Include plenty of fruit, vegetables and whole grains in your diet and limit processed and sugary foods.
Light therapy is a treatment option for some individuals with the winter blues / SAD that can be done at home using a light box. These devices emit a bright light, which is at least 10 times stronger than regular indoor lighting, and is recommended for use for up to 2 hours per day. It is also possible to enhance the effectiveness of light therapy by using a dawn simulator, which is a bedside light connected to an alarm clock that gradually increases in brightness similar to a natural sunrise.
The longer nights and lack of natural light at this time of year can lead to increased levels of melatonin (the hormone that makes you sleepy) and can also decrease serotonin levels which regulates mood and causes disruption to your circadian rhythm. The quality of your sleep plays a crucial role in mood and brain function, so it is important to maintain healthy, regular sleeping patterns during these darker months. Take a look at our article Catch some Zzzs for some tips on how to get a good night’s sleep.
Socialising and connecting with others is a great way to help improve low mood and combat feelings of loneliness and isolation which are often exacerbated by long, dark days. This can be as simple as taking a walk with a friend, joining a local group or club, or simply picking up the phone and speaking to a loved one. By reaching out to others you can not only seek support but be a source of support for others who may be feeling similar to yourself.
A glass of wine or two can be a tempting or comforting way to try and lift your mood if you are feeling down during the winter months. However, it’s important to be aware that alcohol is a depressant, which means it can actually make your mood worse in the long run. When you drink booze, it reduces the amount of serotonin that your brain produces, which can lead to feelings of depression and anxiety. Alcohol can also disrupt sleeping patterns which often worsens symptoms of SAD and the winter blues. Read more about how you can cut down your drinking in our article What happens to your body when you stop drinking.
While supplements such as vitamin D may help ease some symptoms of seasonal low mood caused by a lack of exposure to natural sunlight, there is currently no medical evidence to suggest it is a suitable treatment for conditions such as SAD. It is always best to speak to your doctor or a health professional before taking vitamin supplements to treat any condition.
If you are struggling with winter blues, LiveWell Dorset is here to support you. Our mission is to help people living in Dorset lead healthier, happier lives. Why not try our LiveWell Finder tool to find local activity and recreational groups near you, or check out our Habit Hacker for some bespoke behaviour change techniques? You can also drop us a line or register with us today. Our friendly expert coaches and advisors will work with you to create a free health and wellbeing plan that is tailored specifically for your needs.
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