Winter Blues? 5 Ways To Feel Better This Winter

Dec 11, 2021 | General, Mental Health | 0 comments

Winter Trees Blue

Winter. Whether you love or hate this time of year, the shorter days, gloomy skies, and cold temperatures have a direct impact on our bodies and minds. At this time of year, individuals can feel more lethargic, depressed, and less motivated, leading to the phenomenon of ‘Winter Blues’. There are varying degrees of how severe people react to the winter months, ranging from a mild sleepiness to clinical ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder’ (SAD).

Thankfully, there are steps we can take to reduce the impact of the winter blues in our lives. In this article, we will take a look at five of the easiest ways to introduce some light to the darkest time of the year!

1. Adjust Your Diet

For most of human history, our diets have revolved around the seasons, and would shift in accordance with them. Due to globalisation and industrial agriculture, this is no longer the case. Whilst this has been an incredible benefit to our nutritional standards in many ways, there are also some potential unintended consequences of this situation. Unfortunately, ultra-processed foods and snacks that are high in sugar have become the norm in our modern society. [1]

Maintaining A Healthy Diet Can Provide Us With Physical And Mental Strength This Winter
Maintaining A Healthy Diet Can Provide Us With Physical And Mental Strength This Winter

This is a deeply unnatural situation to be in in terms of the average persons diet. Our nutritional needs change with the seasons, and in times gone by, we would have adjusted our diets in tune with this external change. [2] Consider adding winter vegetables to your meals. Good options include;

● Onions

● Shallots

● Kale

● Leeks

● Brussels Sprouts

● Parsnips

● Asparagus

● Garlic

● Pak Choi

● Carrots

All these vegetables provide a high nutrient density, and are a much better option than snacking on processed junk food that is typical of the Christmas commercial period. Stews and soups using root vegetables can offer warming, healthy meals at this time of year to help keep your body fit and well.

If possible, purchase winter vegetables that have been grown locally and organically. Perhaps there is a local farmers market near where you live on certain days of the week. Not only will these foods help you to be in tune with the environment and season, but you will also help small businesses in your area by supporting them.

Making a conscious effort to change our diets for the better is important at this time of year, as the ‘Winter Blues’ can lead us to making detrimental nutritional choices. When we are tired or in a low mood, the temptation to ‘Comfort Eat’ can show up. Comfort eating behaviours share neurophysiological circuits with addiction pathways. These neural pathways can be triggered at times of stress and low moods, producing cravings for “sweet, fatty, energy-dense food”. [3] This provides the individual with a transient, short lived stress relief that unfortunately wears off quickly.

This trap of comfort eating is particularly easy to fall in to during the winter months, as the temptation arises look for quick, easy snacks. Indeed, the shops certainly stock plenty of comfort foods during winter, and culture encourages us to indulge in chocolate treats and cakes during this time of year.

This is something to be cautious of, as it is well known and documented that a regular high-sugar, high-fat diet can lead to an increased risk of multiple health problems including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancers. [4]

However, there is some good news. Findings in a 2019 study suggested that healthy alternatives could provide some of the same stress relief effect of unhealthy foods.

“By replacing unhealthy comfort foods with fruits and vegetables, individuals will not be sacrificing any stress-reducing benefits and can inherently improve the quality of their diet while avoiding potential drawbacks of unhealthy comfort eating.”

Finch LE, Cummings JR, Tomiyama AJ. – Cookie or Clementine? [5]

The study was called ‘Cookie Or Clementine’ for good reason! A banana or an orange make a good alternative to processed foods and can help maintain your physical wellbeing this winter.

A poor diet consisting of junk foods has been shown to increase the risk of depression, and the Western diets consisting of a lot of junk foods have been shown to be particularly bad in this regard. [6] At a time of year that can lead to low moods, it is best to avoid adding fuel to this fire but indulging in sugar rich junk foods, no matter how tempting it can be to do so!

2. Vitamin D & Supplementation

The lack of adequate sunshine hours in the winter reduces our ability to synthesise Vitamin D. It’s become increasingly well known in recent years how important Vitamin D is to the body. It supports the immune system, and can help improve moods. [7]

Vitamin D can be produced by the body when the skin is exposed to sunlight in a reaction with ultraviolet rays and a cholesterol-like compound. In our modern and largely indoor lives, many of us are slightly deficient in Vitamin D.

Exposing Our Skin To Sunlight Helps Our Bodies To Synthesise Vitamin D
Exposing Our Skin To Sunlight Helps Our Bodies To Synthesise Vitamin D

Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin that is converted by the liver in to a hormone called calcidiol. Some of this calcidiol is also converted by the kidneys in to a compound called calcitriol.

Calcitriol is used by the body to regulate blood calcium levels, and to ensure that there is enough calcium and phosphorus present to maintain healthy teeth and bones. This process also relies on Vitamin K, which aids this regulation. [8]

Vitamin D has also shown promise in treating symptoms of depression. It has been hypothesized that a potential role of Vitamin D in treating depression is through the regulation of calcium at NMDA receptor sites in the brain. [9]

The short, dark days of winter can mean we don’t get enough sunlight directly on to our skin required to synthesise all the Vitamin D we need. If you are spending most of your days indoors for work, this effect can be even more pronounced. This lack of sunlight could be leading to a Vitamin D deficiency. If you feel that this criteria matches your own experience, Vitamin D supplementation could be a good option to correct deficiencies. [10]

Vitamin D Supplementation Is Common During Dark Nordic Winters
Vitamin D Supplementation Is Common During Dark Nordic Winters

Indeed, in many Scandinavian countries, where winter sunlight is low to nonexistent, Vitamin D has been used as a supplement for years by most of the population. [11] A study revealed that the mean vitamin D intake in Scandinavia was twice that of other European countries. Perhaps in the future, this practice may become normalised in North America and the rest of Europe too.

Not only could Vitamin D supplementation help fight the winter blues, but it could also help fight off viruses and infections. This is because Vitamin D plays a key role in helping our immune systems stay fit and functional. [12] Vitamin D supplementation has shown tremendous promise in helping our bodies fight off viral infections, and reducing symptoms of respiritory illnesses.

When supplementing with Vitamin D, be sure to choose an option that is suspended in oil. Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin, and therefore is best absorbed in it’s natural state. The dry, white tablet form of Vitamin D is less effective than the gel-cap variety.

(To read more about the benefits of Vitamin D, you can read our article on the matter here.)

3. Sunlight & SAD Lights

Perhaps one the most obvious causes of winter blues is the lack of sunlight. The dark, short days of winter mean we often don’t see the sun for weeks at a time. This has big effects on our bodies, and low levels of sunlight exposure have been linked to increased rates of depression. [13]

Sunlight Improves Our Moods And Boosts Our Immune Systems
Sunlight Improves Our Moods And Boosts Our Immune Systems

As we discussed above, sunlight is crucial as it allows our body to synthesis Vitamin D when it hits our bare skin, but the skin is not the only part of the body that reacts to sunlight. Wavelengths in natural sunlight are important signals for the brain too. Sunlight is detected by a small cluster of nerve cells located in the hypothalamus in the brain, called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). [14]

The SCN plays a key role in regulating our body clock and our circadian rhythms. Many of our biological functions are synchronize to the cycle of a day, including our sleep cycle, the release of digestive enzymes, and the production of melatonin and cortisol. [15] All of these unconcious biological processes play out on a roughly 24 hour time scale, and sunlight and the SCN is crucial in harmonizing the rhythms.

The changes in the levels of sunlight is detected by the SCN, and signals are sent to the body to inform the nervous system to a change of seasons.

The SCN is the primary oscillator in humans. Indolamines are known to transduce light signals into cells and organisms since early in evolution, and their role in signalling change of season is still preserved in humans. Melatonin is synthesized primarily in the pineal gland and is the central hormone for internal clock circuitries. The melatonin precursor serotonin is known to modulate many behaviours that vary with season.”

Pail G, Huf W, Pjrek E, Winkler D, Willeit M, Praschak-Rieder N, Kasper S – Bright-Light Therapy In The Treatment of Mood Disorders [16]

This direct link between sunlight, the SCN and Serotonin is very revealing. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is thought to play a key role in mood regulation. Many anti-depressant drugs are designed to target serotonin receptors, and dysfunctional levels of serotonin have been linked to depression. [17]

This suggests that the changes of season could be leading directly to changes in our neurotransmitter levels, which could potentially be leading to depressive symptoms and low moods in some people.

Exposure To Winter Sunlight Can Help Regulate Our Biological Rhythms
Exposure To Winter Sunlight Can Help Regulate Our Biological Rhythms

Disrupted or malfunctioning circadian rhythms have even been linked to an increase in allergies. Most immune cells express circadian clock genes, and present a wide array of genes expressed with a 24 hour rhythm. The number of peripheral blood mononuclear cells as well as the level of cytokines, undergo daily fluctuations. [18]

The SCN provides information about seasons and time of day that is used by these immune cells. [19]

Low moods, disrupted sleep, and allergies? This factor alone is enough to give anyone a case of the Winter Blues!

Direct sunlight exposure is obviously the best option, but if for whatever reason, that is not possible for you at this time of year, consider the possibility of using a SAD light. SAD Lights are bright, full wavelength lights that produce a powerful simulation of sunlight. It has been found that using SAD lights during waking hours assists in circadian rhythm regulation. [20]

Bright light therapy has also been clinically proven to improve symptoms of seasonal depression. [21]

One of the things I love to do in winter is to close my eyes with a bright SAD light in front of me, and imagine that I am looking at the sun on a Spring day!

4. Keep Active

On a dark, gloomy day, it can be tempting to slouch in to the sofa and stay comfortable in the warm. Staying idle however, may be a contributing factor to feelings of sadness and tiredness during the winter. It can be difficult to resist our body’s desire for comfort, but research has revealed that physical activity plays a crucial role in improving maintaining a good quality of mental health. [22]

Outdoor Exercise Is A Great Way To Fight Winter Blues
Outdoor Exercise Is A Great Way To Fight Winter Blues

Exercise has been studied as a possible treatment for clinical depression, and the results have been very promising. Research has found that the best forms of exercise to improve moods are activities under the category of ‘Moderate Exercise‘. This is referring to physical activity that gets our bodies working but without pushing ourselves to our absolute physical limits. [23]

Exercise that is too sedate and mild may not be effective, whilst pushing yourself too hard could lead to injuries and exhaustion. A light jog, cycling, or a casual game of tennis would be good options for moderate exercise.

A lack of physical activity can lead to muscular atrophy and deconditioning. Deconditioning is a process by which the body adapts to a lower level of activity. Muscle fibres, nerve endings, and even our blood volume changes in response to lowered physical activity. [24] These biological changes can lead to bodily weakness, chronic tiredness, and feelings of malaise.

This is concerning, and shows that we must stay active to keep our body running efficiently. Muscle mass is lost much faster than it is put on, and so we must force ourselves to take moderate exercise when possible to fight off this deconditioning process. Unfortunately, nature can be harsh but once we accept this reality, we become better able to deal with it, and produce more desirable outcomes.

Staying Physically Active Is Crucial For Our Health And Wellbeing In The Winter
Staying Physically Active Is Crucial For Our Health And Wellbeing In The Winter

A study in 2013 found that exercise improves mental health, “helps to prevent depression, and promotes/maintains positive self-esteem.” The study goes on to state that “Moderate-intensity exercise at least 30 minutes per day for at least 5 days per week is recommended for the vast majority of people.” [25]

It’s important to note that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to what constitutes moderate exercise. People have different tolerances and base fitness levels. Experiment to find your happy medium, whereby you can engage in physical activity that works for you.

Even the elderly can benefit by staying active, even with light exercise. Exercise regimes for older adults can offer “beneficial effects on blood pressure, lipids, glucose tolerance, bone density, depression, and quality of life.” [26]

By combining this step with some sunlight exposure by exercising outdoors, you will be well on your way to beating even the most gloomy case of winter blues!

5. Socialise And Communicate

One of the best way to fight a case of winter blues is to communicate and socialise with friends and family. For a variety of reasons, Winter is the season where reported feelings of loneliness and social isolation are at the highest point of the year. Us humans are social creatures, and we require social stimulation and interaction for our bodies and minds to function at an optimal level.

Socialising Provides Huge Benefits To Our Mental Health And Improves Moods
Socialising Provides Huge Benefits To Our Mental Health And Improves Moods

Loneliness has also been found to have links with insomnia and depression. “Weak social networks have been shown to predict restless sleep over time, and that depressed mood mediates this relationship”. [27]

Social isolation can also lead to individuals relying on poor, destructive coping mechanisms. A 2019 study found that “Lonelier young adults were more likely to experience mental health problems, to engage in physical health risk behaviours, and to use more negative strategies to cope with stress.” [28] This indicates that a healthy social life provides a much needed balance and encourages healthier, more prosperous decision making.

If for whatever reason, you can’t meet up with friends or family in person, consider opting for phone calls or online video calls as a replacement. Whilst these digital options are not quite the same as meeting up with other human beings in person, it will nonetheless be helpful to commnicate and provide a level of social interaction.

It is important to mention that viral and bacterial infections spread more easily during the winter months. If you are feeling unwell, or have a high temperature, it would be wise to settle for a phone call or a video call instead of meeting up in person.

Not everyone will experience the same levels of loneliness from prolonged periods of isolation. There seems to be a genetic and personality factor present that allows for variables in how severely people can suffer from this effect. [29] However, if you are one of those that finds social isolation oppressive, then establishing regular social interactions will go a long way to easing this symptom.

Social bonds are crucial for our mental health. This Winter, make sure you are staying in contact with friends and family. You could even combine this step with the others on this list by exercising outdoors in the sun with a companion. This is a fantastic way to improve feeling of wellbeing during the winter months.

Conclusion

These steps are safe and simple ways that anyone suffering from winter blues can start to improve their moods, and become even more important in the dark winter months.

It is important to remember that these steps are not a substitute for professional psychiatric care. In severe instances of depression and low moods, medication may be needed.

If you are experiencing intense depression with suicidal thoughts, it is vital that you seek professional medical help from your doctor or psychiatrist.

Hold On, Spring Isn't Far Away
Hold On, Spring Isn’t Far Away!

Remember that this time of year will soon pass, and time will soon roll on like it always does, leaving these months behind us. Soon we will enjoy the warm glow of Spring, and the Earth will sing with life once again.

“Spring will come and so will happiness. Hold on. Life will get warmer.”

Anita Krizzan – Life Will Get Warmer’

Try your best to eat well, get outside, stay active, and talk to those you care about! Consider also a Vitamin D supplement through the dark months. Remember that even though the dark gloomy days can feel oppressive, Spring is just around the corner! The days will soon be longer, sunnier, and warmer.


[References]

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Written by Keymer Health

December 11, 2021

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