When the days get shorter and darker and winter comes, it often leads to a lack of energy and sadness. Our experts explain what really helps against winter depression.
Identifying and treating winter depression and seasonal affective disorder
You suffer from a pronounced lack of energy; You are in a bad mood and you are prone to tears; You find it harder than usual to get up in the morning, you have never craved carbohydrates again, you can't think of anything worse than walking around people. If any of this sounds familiar, you may be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (also known as SAD).
The National Health Service (NHS) estimates that one in 15 people in the UK has a form of SAD also known as "winter blues" or winter depression, with two percent of the UK population suffering from debilitating symptoms and 20 percent from milder forms. Only 12 percent of people are aware of their condition, which can create some level of despair when faced with a sudden onset of unexplained symptoms in addition to a global pandemic that has led to reports of isolation and loneliness.
SAD is triggered by the short, dark days that the fall and winter months bring with them. The hypothalamus of our brain is believed to malfunction due to the lack of sunlight, which leads to increased production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin and decreased production of the happiness hormone serotonin; in addition, our circadian rhythm becomes unbalanced. SAD is also four times more likely to occur in women, which "is probably related to the cyclical release of the female sex hormones estrogen and progesterone," explains Dr. Natasha Bijlani, a psychiatrist at The Priory, a private behavioral clinic in London.
Another very likely cause is a tendency to produce less vitamin D. A number of studies have linked low levels of this vitamin to depression and, thanks to the lack of sunlight in winter, our bodies can't make nearly enough of it.
So how exactly can we take action against SAD?
It may sound obvious, but eating a balanced, nutrient-rich diet is essential to helping the body get back to its best self. Those who suffer from SAD symptoms know that it goes against everything their bodies ask of them - white, starchy carbohydrates, and sugars - but consumption of such foods simply leads to increased cravings as blood sugar levels rise shortly after a meal sink. It's about eating the right kind of carbohydrates: complex (or low-stress) carbohydrates that are less stressful on blood sugar levels. These include high-fiber fruits like bananas and apples, nuts, beans, whole grains, and vegetables like broccoli and leafy greens. Also, add some high-protein foods to combat sugar cravings.
"Taking a vitamin D supplement is essential," says nutritionist Rosemary Ferguson. "You should pay attention to a high IE value and also spend as much time as possible in daylight." Studies suggest that we should consume at least 600 IU (International Units) of vitamin D daily.
Combining sunlight - or just natural light - with a stroll outdoors can do wonders for your mood. Not only do you boost vitamin D production in the body, but you also benefit from being in nature, which studies have shown can reduce stress, anxiety, and high blood pressure. Try to get some light outside within two hours of waking up to prepare for the day ahead. When you sit in an office most of the day - and who doesn't? - you should take every break you can and try to be near windows to get as much light as possible.
An easy way to lift your mood is with mood-enhancing essential oils that will improve your wellbeing. Take a moment in the shower with the great shower oils from Aromatherapy Associates - Rose is a delicious start - or apply Support + Protection Oil from Anatomē to your wrists throughout the day for instant calm.
They say that if doctors could prescribe them, the movement would be on all of our prescriptions. When we get our heart rate up, mood-enhancing endorphins are released, we reduce stress and generally feel ready to take on the world. And when you combine it with nature, you have the best of both worlds.
"A 2008 study by the International Journal of Yoga Therapy found that relaxing yoga postures combined with visualization and breathing work can lighten the mood and give people a real feeling of empowerment," said Genny Wilkinson Priest, yoga manager at Triyoga. "Yoga, in general, can help people with SAD realize that their fear and sadness will pass and are not permanent states of consciousness. Realizing that it is a temporary state gives people a sense of freedom, personal ability to act and balance."
Wilkinson Priest recommends trying these three yoga poses: the supported child’s pose ("balasana", the position of the child), in which you put something comfortable under your head; to lie down at right angles with the legs against the wall ("viparita Karani" in the yogic tradition) and to put a pile of blankets under the basin or to lie down relaxed, a pillow placed lengthways under the shoulders supports the back Feet are pressed together and the legs are opened to the side.
Instead of real daylight, technology can help. Lightboxes or SAD lamps are designed to imitate the sun with artificial light and can be placed on the desk to expose the body's cells to what they perceive as sunlight. Studies have shown that if you turn on 10,000 lux of cool white fluorescent light - around 20 times more than normal indoor lighting - for 20 to 60 minutes a day, it is enough to notice a difference.
"Normal lamps are around 400–500 lux, but for optimal mood and energy, we all need the light that is as bright as a spring morning. That has to be at least 2000 lux, about four times brighter than a well-lit office," says Malgo Dzierugo from Lumie. The brand's Vitamin L light shower delivers 10,000 lux, and you should sit 16 to 50 cm in front of it for about half an hour to feel the difference. "Most people find light therapy to work best in the morning, so try this first - all you have to do is tilt the lamp for the light to reach your eyes." According to the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association, this type of therapy works 85 percent of the time.
"Be social wherever you can, even when you can't meet in person," says Dr. Bijlani. "If you plan in evenings or afternoons chatting with a friend - be it on the phone or zooming in - you can structure your day and avoid loneliness and negative thoughts or feelings."
Since SAD is a mental health issue, it is always best to speak to your GP. Not only can they tell if it's SAD or some other form of depression, but they can also test for things like a possible vitamin D deficiency or something else. "Psychological treatment with an emphasis on cognitive-behavioral therapy can also be helpful - Priory Connect is online video therapy that can be accessed from home," says Dr. Bijlani.