Do you find your mood starts to darken with the longer nights and darker days? Most of us living in the UK and Ireland are affected by the seasons to some degree or other and many of us suffer the ‘winter blues’ in November, December, January or February. You often hear people saying they have less energy in the autumn and winter, or notice an increase in appetite in the darker months
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or the Winter Blues, is officially recognised by doctors and psychiatrists as a medical condition that is thought to affect 2 million people in the UK and Ireland and over 12 million people across Northern Europe. As a direct consequence of various environmental and lifestyle factors, more people than ever before are suffering from this condition, which can result in a variety of common symptoms associated with ‘winter blues’- lethargy, anxiety, lack of interest and a general feeling of depression.
According to the mental health charity Mind, ‘Some people find that their SAD symptoms vary a lot from year to year, while others find that they get better or worse as they get older. A small percentage of people have very severe symptoms of SAD and find it hard to carry out day-to-day tasks in winter without continuous treatment.’
The Winter Blues
There can be lots of reasons for the winter blues, but one of the biggest culprits is lack of sunlight. Not only does this impact on our melatonin and serotonin levels, but also our vitamin D status.
Melatonin is our sleep hormone. It is suppressed when light enters our eye and hits the pineal gland, so if we do not see enough daylight, it makes sense that melatonin levels are higher in the winter, leaving us more lethargic and sleepy.
There is a direct correlation between levels of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin and the sleep hormone melatonin. Not are made in the body from the amino acid tryptophan, which gets converted into 5HTP, and then into serotonin and melatonin.
Fluctuating levels of serotonin and melatonin throughout the day form the basis of our 24hour biological clock (or circadian rhythm). During daylight hours, production of serotonin increases and melatonin reduces, to give us more drive, energy and get-up-and-go. When it starts to get dark, the pineal gland switches to convert serotonin into melatonin so we become sleepy and get ready for bed.
How can lifestyle help SAD?
- Get outside during daylight hours. Go for a walk around the block at lunchtime, be outside as much as you can on bright days, and especially around midday when the daylight is brighter.
- At home, choose pale colours that reflect light, keep curtains and blinds open as much as possible and try daylight simulation light bulbs.
- Light boxes simulate natural daylight and can help to ‘reset’ the pineal gland during winter months. Light boxes can make a big difference for some people suffering from SAD. If you would like to give it a try, contact your local library , as many of them offer this service free of charge.
- Get your vitamin D levels checked. SAD is more prevalent when vitamin D stores are low because we need sun on our skin to produce vitamin D. I would recommend getting your vitamin D levels tested. For just £28 you can do a simple pinprick blood test to see if you are deficient. This company will do the test for you and send you a complimentary vitamin D supplement if you need it.
- Low serotonin can increase cravings for carbs, but instead of bingeing on comforting carb-rich and sugar laden foods, eating a nourishing, well-balanced diet packed with good nutrition can have a positive impact on your mood.
- Eat oily fish 3 x week. Omega-3 rich salmon, mackerel, herring, trout or sardines, have been shown to help support good mental health.
- Have some protein with each meal to help maintain and sustain balanced blood sugar levels and support mood. Eggs, meat, fish, nuts, seeds, tofu, pulses, yoghurt or humous are good choices.
- Eat something green every day. Green leafy veg are a source of magnesium, which helps support mood.
- Keep sugar to a minimum.
What about supplements?
- It is a good idea to think about vitamin D during winter months if you are not getting enough sunshine. Make sure you choose vitamin D3 and aim for a dose around 2000iu.
- Some people find 5-HTP can be useful. This is a serotonin precursor, but do not use this if you are on anti-depressants or mood modifying medication.
- An omega 3 fish oil may be useful to help support mental well being.