Struggling with the Winter Blues? Here are 6 tips to help combat it
Updated: Dec 16, 2021
Struggling with the Winter Blues? If so, you're not alone.
The term Winter Blues is a name given to the negative change in our mental health state that can occur during the winter months. This can occur on a sliding scale of severity, from a mild mental and physical lethargy, to full-scale depressive symptoms. The upper end of the scale includes a set of symptoms that are clinically diagnosable as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) - perhaps you've heard of it before.
Although the severity and the impact of the symptoms increases as the scale slides, there is still commonality throughout the entire spectrum. Generally speaking, during the Winter months, those afflicted along this scale may expect to experience:
Feelings of sadness or depression
A loss of interest or pleasure in previously enjoyable activities
An overall reduction in motivation or drive
Changes in appetite (namely an increase in consumption)
Changes to sleeping pattern
A loss of energy or increased fatigue even with increased sleep hours
It would be easy to consider the seasonal fluctuation in mood and drive as a result of seasonal preference - an I-love-summer, I-hate-winter mindset - but it is expected to go a lot deeper than that. Let's take a short dive into it:
Contributing Factors & Tips
1. Changes to our internal clock (Circadian Rhythm)
Our bodies rely on light (in particular natural light) to calibrate and regulate our internal clock - known as our circadian rhythm - to know when it is an appropriate time to be awake and when it is time to go to sleep. In the darker months, when daylight hours are limited, we begin to lose the ability to calibrate our internal clock to an accuracy that is sufficient for us. As a result, our sleeping patterns are disrupted. Irregularity in our sleeping patterns can lead to sleep deprivation, with which feelings of depression are a common symptom.
Tip 1: Maintain consistent bed times & wake up times
This will help to maintain the calibration of your circadian rhythm.
Tip 2: Limit exposure to light-emitting devices 1-2 hours before bed
Light exposure tricks your brain into thinking that it is not yet time to sleep, which disrupts your circadian rhythm and can result in the aforementioned complications.
2. Lack of Vitamin D
No doubt you're familiar with Vitamin D. Vitamin D is created in the body when your skin is exposed to sunlight. If you're living in Northern Europe, like we do here in the Netherlands, I'd wager that you have a box of Vitamin D at home for winter use.
But why is Vitamin D so important for our mental health?
Well, Vitamin D is a bit of an all-rounder - a utility molecule. Its presence in the body promotes and facilitates a myriad of changes and reactions across multiple different systems. But, for now, let's focus on the brain. For this, we need to consider the hormone Serotonin, which has long been referred to as one of the 'Happy Hormones'. Serotonin is the key hormone that stabilises our mood, feelings of well-being and happiness, but Serotonin isn't simply readily available in the body. It must be synthesised.
The synthesis of Serotonin is multi-factorial, but a key link in the chain is Vitamin D. Vitamin D activates the molecules that are necessary to synthesise Serotonin. Having inadequate levels of Vitamin D (which is the case for 70% of the population) means that the production of serotonin will be suboptimal, which directly influences our happiness and mood stability.
Tip 3: Maximise daylight exposure as much as possible by taking calls (when appropriate) outside and scheduling a lunchtime walk
Particularly when it's sunny. Get out and about, soak in some Vitamin D, and reap the benefits.
3. Not exercising enough
The link between being physically inactive and mental health concerns has been comprehensively established. Even in the best (and warmest/brightest) of times, a lack of exercise over a long period of time can have dire consequences. In the context of winter, it has been shown that people who are physically sedentary and afflicted along the sliding scale were more likely to experience symptoms with more intensity, along with feelings of anxiety.
We've detailed the potential benefits associated with regular exercise extensively before, so we won't harp on it now. But, take it from us, it is very important.
Tip 4: Schedule short exercise breaks throughout the day to break up sedentary time
Breaking sedentary time with short bouts of exercise creates a cascade of positive neuro-chemical and metabolic changes that influences one's mental health. Try scheduling a short, 5 minute exercise program into your day, 2-3 times per work day.
Tip 5: Find a longer, more intense exercise program that you enjoy
Exercising at a higher intensity and for an extended duration amplifies the physical and mental health benefits, particularly around the 30 minute mark. Find a program of moderate-vigorous intensity that goes for around 30-45 minutes, and complete this 2-3 times per week.
Tip 6: Exercise outside where possible!
Get out into the sun and enjoy yourself a double-dosage of happy hormones.