Winter Blues

by Polly N on November 10, 2010

Some people welcome the colder months and love to cosy up infront of the fire. Others dread the onset of winter and the thought of dark mornings and even darker evenings. Winter blues are a common experience for people at this time of year and knowing the factors that create it, may help you to keep it at bay.

Exposure to light naturally increases feel good chemicals in our brains and bodies, such as serotonin. When the days shorten in Autumn and you have less exposure to sun and natural light, you have a physiological setup for feeling a bit blue or moody. This change is very commonly known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and affects tens of thousands of people each year. It’s not uncommon to experience fatigue, lethargy, weight gain, carbohydrate craving, excessive sadness, and changes in your libido as the summer comes to an end. But luckily there are some easy things you can do to alleviate seasonal symptoms.

As the seasons change, you’re also more likely to experience premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and interestingly, women with PMS are more likely to experience SAD. It may help you to understand why your menstral cycle is affected by the seasonal change. When light hits the retina, it directly influences the entire neuroendocrine system via the hypothalamus and the pineal gland. In one study, patients with PMS responded significantly to treatment with bright light. Their weight gain, depression, carbohydrate craving, social withdrawal, fatigue, and irritability were reversed with two hours of full-spectrum bright light in the evening. This is not surprising, because both natural light and carbohydrate consumption increase serotonin levels, which ease depression. Living under artificial light much of the time, without regular exposure to natural light, not only can profoundly affect the regularity of the menstrual cycle, but can also create PMS. The link between PMS and SAD is a profound example of how women’s wisdom is simultaneously encoded in both the cycle of the seasons and our monthly cycles.

In the winter, we tend to make more melatonin which is a natural substance created by the brain when it’s dark. Melatonin aids with sleep but too much melatonin can leave you feeling sluggish and mentally foggy. When you add this to the fact that our circadian rhythms, those that govern our sleep and wake cycle, are different in winter than in summer, it’s easy to understand why you might experience fatigue. To counter this, you could increase the amount of full spectrum light you are exposed to with full spectrum light bulbs and/or a light box. It is reported that you will feel some relief from sleepiness and even premenstrual moodiness or irritability.

There are numerous studies that have demonstrated the connection between full spectrum light and serotonin levels. Interestingly, a drop in melatonin enhances feel-good hormones, including endorphins and serotonin, which help you feel both alert and calm. This transformation occurs in the brain as a result of being in more light. That’s why getting outside at noon for a half hour walk on a sunny day during the winter months will lift your mood greatly but leave the sunglasses at home as these block the sunrays (obviously)!

Seasonal Blues

You can keep the seasonal changes from impacting you negatively by following some simple suggestions:

  • If your diet isn’t as varied as it could be; take a good quality multi-vitamin/mineral every day. 
  • Getting enough vitamin D is critical in winter months. There is a lot of compelling research when it comes to the connection between depression and vitamin D deficiency. (Vitamin D deficiency is also linked to certain cancers, like breast and colon; a weakened immune system; poor bone health etc.)
  • Ensure you’re getting enough essential fatty acids, which are found in fish (like salmon – try to buy organic and non-farmed where possible), nuts, seeds (like flaxseed), and many plants.

  • Eliminate refined sugar, refined flour, and other processed foods from your diet. Eating carbs increases serotonin, which you might find in short supply if you’re not getting enough natural light.  However while this may give you an initial energy boost, due to it’s high glycaemic index, you’ll experience a significant drop in energy shortly afterwards.
  • Invest in full spectrum light bulbs and consider purchasing a light box, especially if you live in a Northern latitude.
  • Practice stress reduction or holistic therapies such as reflexology or accupuncture. Women who practice meditation or other methods of deep relaxation are able to alleviate many of their PMS and seasonal blues symptoms. Relaxation of all kinds decreases the stress hormones cortisol and helps to balance your biochemistry.
  • Get outside! Brisk walking during sunlight hours—especially without sunglasses so your eyes absorb the light—can boost endorphins. It’s estimated that half of all depression cases can be helped through exercise alone. It’s not uncommon to feel a shift in energy and mood as the seasons change.

Remember the cleaner you diet, the cleaner your body, the cleaner your mind. Everything you eat and drink has a direct impact on how you feel so choose wisely!

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