It is scientifically proven that shorter daylight hours and a lack of sunshine can affect our mood. When the winter blues creep in it makes it harder for us remain alert and motivated.
Our bodies depend upon getting sufficient bright light during the day to signal our bodies to be awake and alert. Without this signal, our bodies may not provide us with the energy and hormones needed to help us feel at our best.
According to Rachel Boyd, from mental health charity Mind, for some people the change in day length and lack of sunshine can have a much greater impact on their mood and energy and lead to a form of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Symptoms of SAD are similar to other forms of depression, including feelings of hopelessness, lack of concentration, social withdrawal, and fatigue. Studies suggest that 1 in 5 of us experience a mild version of the winter blues, and 1 in 15 people in the UK are affected by SAD between September and April (NHS).
Let’s take a look at ways to look after our mental health this winter and boost our mood:
- Physical activity can help lift mood and energy levels by releasing ‘happy hormones’ called endorphins. Take a look at the ‘staying active in the winter’ blog for ideas. Research suggests that outdoor exercise, such as cycling or jogging, can be as effective as antidepressants in treating depression.
- Make the most of the winter sun and day light. Take a walk when the sun is out and try to sit near a window to make the most of the light. Light makes us feel happy and energised as it is needed for our bodies to stimulate serotonin (mood lifting) and cortisol (energy boosting).
- Keeping in touch with family and friends strengthens our sense of community, providing us with a strong support system to lean on when feeling down. Making a call, especially to older relatives, can really make someone’s day, especially if the winter weather is making it harder for people to leave the house.
- Balancing blood sugars throughout the day can keep moods steady without causing a ‘sugar crash’ and moods to plummet. Reach for a healthy snack at work rather than a chocolate bar or energy drink.
- Eat tryptophan rich foods – this is necessary for the body to produce the “feel good” hormone serotonin, which can help improve sleep and mood. Tryptophan foods include: nuts/seeds, tofu, poultry, fish, oats, beans, lentils, and eggs.
- Magnesium rich foods have been found to improve sleep and to reduce anxiety (2 symptoms of seasonal depression). Foods include green leafy vegetables, pumpkin seeds, lentils and avocados.
- We all like to eat chocolate over the Christmas period. Try swapping to dark chocolate. Studies have shown that it significantly improves mood due to it’s high polyphenol content (antioxidant).
- Studies have shown that increasing our omega-3 fatty acids can increase our mood too and reduce symptoms of depression. Sources include: oily fish, flax seeds, salmon and walnuts
- A diet rich in folates can reduce mental fatigue and depression. L-tyrosine (an amino acid) is crucial for the synthesis of the neurotransmitter, dopamine, which affects mood. Folate-rich vegetables include spinach, broccoli, kale and sprouts (always in abundance in the winter months!).
- Carbohydrates can increase brain serotonin levels (this is why we like to comfort eat in the winter). Rather than eating too many simple carbohydrates, e.g. white bread, pasta and cakes, try switching to complex carbs such as wholegrains and vegetables, including sweet potatoes, oats and quinoa. These will keep us fuller for longer and avoid that sugar crash.
- Keeping your immune system strong to fight illnesses can help us to stay positive. See our latest article on tips for preventing colds and flu this winter.
- Practising mindfulness – meditation has been shown to improve symptoms in people suffering from depression and anxiety. Meditation can be as short as a 10-minute session every other day. Apps such as Headspace provide guided mediation. Other meditative practices such as yoga, taking a quiet walk in a park, or even closing your eyes to focus on listening to your favourite song can also be helpful.
For further information on SAD, have a look at this PDF from Mind.
Duffy JF, Czeisler CA. Effect of Light on Human Circadian Physiology. Sleep Med Clin., 2009.
Golden RN, Gaynes BN, Ekstrom RD, et al. The efficacy of light therapy in the treatment of mood disorders: a review and meta-analysis of the evidence. Am J Psychiatry, 2005.
Kurlansik SL, Ibay AD. Seasonal Affective Disorder. Am Fam Physician, Dec. 2012.
Mental Health Foundtation (2019) https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/s/seasonal-affective-disorder-sad
Pase M P, et al. (2013) Cocoa polyphenols enhance positive mood states but not cognitive performance: a randomized, placebo-controlled trial. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0269881112473791
Westrin A, Lam RW. Seasonal Affective Disorder: A Clinical Update. Annals of Clin Psychiatry, 2007