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Are You Suffering with the Winter Blues (or SAD)? 4 Things That Will Help

It’s been a few long, dark weeks since Daylight Saving Time ended, the clocks ‘fell’ back and many of us are probably still adjusting (and still manually changing our clocks 👀 or is that just me).

With the hype of Halloween now a distant memory, the days are getting darker, and colder…and shorter…

Buckle up everybody because we’re now entering peak winter blues season.

Why do we change the clocks anyway?

 

Daylight Saving Time / British Summer Time.

Whatever you call it – it’s the phenomenon that sees us springing our clocks forward an hour in March and falling back an hour in October. Daylight saving refers to the time in-between March to October where we borrow one hour of daylight from the morning and add it to the end of the day.

Which is really fun, for our bodies and brains to adjust to 😬

Modern society has embraced Daylight Saving hours in the UK since 1916 (Canada started the trend in 1908) when it was introduced to make better use of the daylight on offer, and in turn save on energy usage and costs.

 Fast forward over 100 years and in the UK, we still need all the help we can get on the energy-saving front.

But for this year, Daylight Saving is over, and we are back to good old GMT to see us through the winter months ahead.

The transition from Daylight Saving can be difficult for many and lead to an attack of the winter blues.

 

What are the winter blues?

 Picture the scene:

It’s cold outside. It's dark outside.

It's miserable (everywhere?)

Whilst it might seem like we’ve amped up on the misery-vibe especially for this blog post, there’s no denying it - this is the time of year that a lot of us start to feel decidedly melancholier.

You may notice as the weather gets colder and darker that you start to experience the following changes in mood;

-      Feeling sad

-      Lacking motivation

-      Trouble sleeping

-      Feeling like you need to be in bed

-      Less energy and less interest in usual activities

Remember - this is completely OK! It’s totally normal to experience the winter blues and not quite feel yourself.

For some people, these winter blues become even more severe and result in a medical condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). This is a type of depression that can hinder your everyday activities and leave you feeling really crappy.

It’s thought to be triggered by a lack of sunlight during Autumn and Winter months – which in turn disrupts your internal circadian rhythm and leads to low energy and a depressed mood.

 

Circadian what?

Circadian Rhythms: the bodies internal 24-hour clock – a natural, internal process that ticks over in the background and helps us carryout essential functions and schedules - like falling asleep, waking up, digestive/appetite requirements, body temperature and hormone regulation. The most powerful influence on our circadian rhythm is light.

Still with us?

Great, let's continue.

Whilst a case of the winter blues usually resolves itself, Seasonal Affective Disorder is a clinical diagnosis triggered by the change in seasons, and it’s worth booking in with your doctor to discuss treatment if you have concerns.The NHS predicts that around 2 million people in the UK alone suffer from SAD, and it’s more prevalent in women age between 18 to 30. You can suddenly feel a world apart from your happy summer-self. It can wreak havoc on your relationships, your work-life and your general outlook.

 In addition to the traditional winter blues symptoms, sufferers of SAD may also experience feelings of:

-      Hopelessness and despair

-      Fatigue and low energy

-      Insomnia & difficult concentrating

-      Appetite changes

-      Tension & stress

Whilst we can’t wave a magic wand and make winter blues disappear completely there are a few things we suggest doing to try and help lessen the gloom of this time of year.

 

1.    Seek Out Daylight

This is the by far best thing you can do, immediately!

Think about it – in the winter, there’s a high chance you wake up and it’s dark outside. You’re then inside all day working during the daylight hours, and by the time you shut the laptop down the sun is on its merry way down-under for the night. Rolling through a 5-day working week in this vein and you could barely be getting any type of sunlight (ok, by sunlight we mean daylight) exposure.

This is really unhelpful for the aforementioned circadian rhythm which is hugely disrupted by a lack of sunlight.

-      When it’s dark our clever brains produce the sleep hormone melatonin to help us sleep

-      Sunlight then triggers the brain to halt the melatonin production process, so that we feel awake and alert

-      With darker and longer nights, our bodies might produce too much melatonin – resulting in us feeling low on energy and sluggish

And as if that’s not bad enough, a decrease in sunlight can also lower our bodies production of serotonin – a chemical mood booster and stabiliser. Leading to all sorts of gloomy feelings and a knock-on impact on sleep and mood.

 

WHAT TO DO: Commit to spending at least 5 minutes outside each morning as soon as reasonably possible after waking. If it’s tricky to get outside, sitting next to a window to boost your exposure to daylight will also help.

Another bonus would be if you can sneak in a walk at lunchtime or at some point during the day when its light outside. Your circadian rhythm will massively thank you.

 

2.    Exercise On The Regular

I bet you knew we’d say this. 😎

Seriously though, in additional to all the other millions of benefits of exercising regularly, a daily dose of activity is a great way to release endorphins and boost your mood.  

 

WHAT TO DO: You’ll be winning if you can squeeze in some sort of exercise outside during the day – so that you can tick the daylight exposure box too.

This isn’t going to be possible for everyone, we get it.

And the last thing you probably want to do in the evening is drag yourself out for a jog or walk. But try incorporating some form of movement into your everyday life and we guarantee you’ll feel better - even if it’s just a 10-minute walk. Being realistic and consistent about what is manageable for you is key here.

Don’t be too hard on yourself if you can’t get outside, or if you feel uncomfortable being out in the dark alone. Instead, you could follow along an on-demand workout at home, or just walk up and down your stairs for 5 minutes. All activity counts and will get those feel-good endorphins flowing.

  

3.    Bring in the Complex Carbs & Vitamin D!

No, you’re not just imagining it. In the winter, our natural physiological response is to crave more carb-rich foods and more food in general. Experts believe it’s due to ancestral instincts kicking in from the days where the struggle was real to find food & survive in the winter months.

Remember that in the winter our bodies are producing more melatonin (meaning we feel sleepier and more sluggish) and less serotonin (our moods and general wellbeing fluctuates) so it’s common to feel an attack of the hunger cravings – especially for those sugary and starchy foods that we traditionally associate with giving us a mood boost. On top of this we’re spending more time inside… meaning more time near the fridge / cupboards (and maybe the biscuit tin) and more opportunities to mindlessly eat.

WHAT TO DO: We’re not here to tell you to cut foods out or restrict your eating. Never, because diet culture is not our thing and will just make you more miserable.

Let’s look at the opportunity to switch up some simple carb cravings and instead focus on fuelling our bodies with more complex carbs.

At the risk of turning this into a nutrition lesson, there are two types of carbohydrate;

Simple Carb

The likes of processed sugar, white flour, sweets, fast food, soda etc. Otherwise known as empty calories – because there is no nutritional benefit or value for the body.  

Simple carbs get absorbed into your blood stream immediately and provide energy FAST. Unfortunately, what happens is your blood sugar sky rockets but then comes crashing down just as fast. (Let’s be honest - we all feel great at the very moment when we eat a Kit Kat Chunky, but fatigue soon sets in when the energy has gone and leaves us feeling tired and grouchy.)

Complex Carb

Things like whole-grain products, rice, fruit, beans, lentils, buckwheat. These not only contain lots of vitamins and minerals, but also fibre which is a natural type of carbohydrate that isn’t digestible. One of the main benefits of fibre is it results in us feeling fuller, for longer.

Complex carbs get absorbed much slower in the bloodstream, meaning blood sugar levels rise gradually. You feel fuller for longer, and don’t have immediate cravings. Things are a lot more stable.

Yes - we know a banana isn’t as immediately gratifying as a chocolate bar.

But it’s going to stabilise your blood sugar levels and mood far longer and give you more energy.  

Eating a food high in sugar or simple carbs leads to peaks and crashes in the blood sugar, and in turn impacts the brain and its neurotransmitters- the end result is increased feelings of low mood, gloom, anxiety, brain fog and fatigue.

Instead, eating foods that provide a consistent and sustainable source of energy will really help. Whilst we’re on the subject of food - another tip to combat the winter blues is to focus on incorporating Vitamin D rich foods into your diet.

Around 1 in 6 adults and almost 20% of children in the UK have low levels of Vitamin D.    

This is a really important vitamin which is essential for building bone, regulating calcium, and maintaining healthy teeth and muscles. It does many other useful things like regulating inflammation & the immune system. Between March – September most of us can make all the vitamin D we need from sunlight (the body produces Vitamin D from cholesterol when the skin has direct sunlight exposure) but in the winter months, we can’t create enough – so it’s extra helpful to focus on fortifying your diet with Vitamin D rich foods.

As with all supplementations, it’s preferential to be getting the vitamins or minerals via diet & environment where possible (e.g. sunlight in Vitamin D’s case) but if you feel you need a boost you could add in a daily vitamin tablet. Vitamin D rich foods include oily fish (salmon, trout, mackerel, and sardines) eggs yolks, red meat and some mushrooms. Get these added to your winter grocery shops!

 

4.    Ramp up the Social & Community

These long dark nights stretch for months, so taking a bit of time to plan some fun activities or meet-ups with friends/family can help give you something to look forward to.

It doesn’t need to revolve around going out – even a simple night in with great company can give you the boost you need for your social and emotional health.

We see a lot more people nowadays using exercise as a social tool - be it joining an exercise class with a friend or going out for a run together and spurring each other on. It makes sense - humans crave connection and a sense of belonging. Not only do you reap the benefits of socialising and the friendship & connection the experience provides, but you’re also looking after your body and mind as well.

A win-win.

WHAT TO DO: Plan in a few achievable dates with friends or family to give you something to work towards. It could be a quiet night in, a night out, a long phone or video call or a regular exercise/activity after work/at the weekend.

Word of warning; be careful not to over-do the planning – as with everything, being realistic about what you can manage is essential.  Don’t forget to factor in the other areas and commitments of your busy life in order to avoid burn-out or even date-dread. We’ve all been there.

Important note: if you are struggling with your feelings, please remember no-one should suffer in silence and if you’re finding things emotionally hard right now, you won’t be alone. Talking with someone you trust whether that’s a friend, partner, colleague, or health professional can provide the support, reassurance and help you need for your mental wellbeing.