So, it’s that time of year again. The clocks have changed, it’s getting dark early, the weather is wet or freezing, and everybody is bemoaning either the early appearance of Christmas in the seasonal aisle, or the shops playing Christmas music straight after Halloween, whilst commenting on how quickly the year has flown by again.
Some people love this time of year, whilst others do their best scrooge impression and pray for New Year’s Day when it is all over. Some even take holidays in warmer climes.
For those who struggle at this time of year, there are actually at least two things at play here, and several things converge at this time of year. One is the weather, cold and darkness, another are the issues that arise for people, related to the ‘festive’ season.
Some people may feel very very tired, unable to cope with the strains of the western working week, the toil 0f the 9-5, and get themselves out of bed and to work easily. This may lead to very low moods, sluggishness, the need for LOTS of sleep, weight gain, and the loss of desire for socialising, and having sex.
In turn, many people may feel very concerned and visit their GP who may diagnose ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder’ (SAD), and prescribe anti-depressant medication. SAD is diagnostic sub-category (those who know me will know my love of the diagnostic system – not!) within the broader category of depression, that is associated with the turn of the season and is the only time of year people really suffer with it.
So, what is there another explanation for it? What is really happening? And what can we do about it?
I am here to answer all of those questions.
I have a lot of people come along to my classes and talk of having SAD, and this piece is inspired by a lady who brought it up for discussion last week. I gave her the very same explanation and tools I am going to offer here.
Firstly, it is important to understand that the human body has not evolved for over 10,000 years. Think about that for a second.
This means that our bodies operate in the same way to those of our cave dwelling, hunter-gatherer ancestors. Our ancestors lived close to the land and very much in tune with the cycles and seasons of the planet. By mid-November, in the Northern Hemisphere (where we are) they will have brought in the final harvest (at Samhain around the end of October), they will have it in store and be hankering down, huddled together to generate heat and conserve energy, in preparation for a hard winter, which many likely didn’t survive.
Fast forward 10,000 years and we start to see how the symptoms I mentioned above are designed to confer an evolutionary advantage, ie we are meant to feel this way in order to survive the winter.
Our metabolism slows down so that we don’t burn up energy as we do not know when the winter will lift and when we will be able to hunt, gather, and eat freely again. We will be more inclined to eat high fat foods that gain weight, in order to see us through. Hence, we will feel sluggish, and we may find ourselves resorting to comfort eating.
Sleeping, is thus the most efficient way to conserve energy, and is the closest a human gets to hibernation (long story as to why humans can’t hibernate – I’ll tell that another time, google it, it’s interesting 😉 ) Libido is reduced, as winter was not a good time to get pregnant, imagine having to eat for two when there is a reduced food supply! So, as we can see, there are some very good reasons as to why we would feel sad and blue during the winter.
In Western society, then, we have 10,000 year old adapted bodies, trying to live a C21st lifestyle – that is, we are expected to live as if it’s the height of spring and summer all year round.
We still have to get up for the 9 to 5, go to school, care for children and take them to all their clubs and social events, and then, slap bang in the middle, we ‘re expected to entertain and perform at the office Christmas party, whilst being the life and soul of the family Christmas event and do a world tour via Timbuctoo of every relative we haven’t spoken to for the whole year (I’ll address seasonal stresses and strain elsewhere).
So, how can we help it?:
- Vitamin D levels are an important factor in the Northern Hemisphere, where we do not get enough light to keep our vitamin D levels optimal, or even average, throughout the winter months. Our bodies do not store Vitamin D. Vitamin D is produced in the skin cells through exposure to the ultraviolet rays of the sun. Vitamin D is related to mood and bone health (hence why children are starting to get rickets again). If we become deficient, we can suffer with mood swings, fatigue, aching bones, muscle weakness, and osteoporosis.
- Ensure that you get outside every day throughout the winter months, for at least 10 minutes. Put on your coat and go for a walk. The sun’s rays can still reach you through cloud, it is a myth that it must be sunny for Vitamin D to be produced. Plus, the exercise will raise levels of all of the feel good hormones! 2-in-1 😀
- Vitamin D supplements are now available in most grocery shops, though specialist wholefood shops will have more potent versions. I take vitamin D drops with K2 from October to March, as K2 helps the vitamin D to be absorbed, as does calcium. If you are low in Vitamin D you are likely to be low in calcium and vice versa. (Though most supplements are harmless, please check with your GP if you are taking other medications and speak to a naturopath, or even the specialist in a health food shop)
- Eat plenty of fatty fish, fish oils, egg yolks, and mushrooms.
- Invest in a SAD, or light therapy, lamp – these are boxes that emit light that mimics sunlight. There are many different types, but to be effective, the bulbs need to be at 10,000 lux, so check the labels. I had one on my wall at home for many years (like the one pictured below right), that was switched on the whole time, and another small one (Go Lite Blue pictured to the left) with an alarm to wake me up in the morning, which I sat in front of whilst having my tea and doing my make-up, and shone for between 15 and 45 minutes.
- One way it works is by switching off the melatonin (sleepy chemical), thus mimicking the effect of the sun. Melatonin and Serotonin (happy chemical) work in harmony to help you both sleep and wake up and feel good during the day.
- Make sure that you switch it off well before bedtime, otherwise it can have the opposite effect and keep you awake. Similar to our mobile devices !!!
- Rest when you feel tired – its’ a busy time of year anyway, so make sure that you get enough rest and sleep. This is essential anyway, of course, but you may feel the need for an extra nap when you are not at work, that is absolutely fine. You may wish to minimise your evening activities and go to bed earlier during the week. However, cancelling everything leads to isolation, and connection is an important part of keeping mentally and emotionally healthy, so make sure that you balance early nights with seeing or speaking to friends, and being active.
- The main take away here, is that our bodies are meant to be slower at this time of year. Quite often, the story we tell ourselves about it not being ‘normal’ to be this tired, sluggish, and apathetic, can be retold in a way that makes sense. We can be so wedded to our story of ‘illness’, that it keeps us feeling bad and we remain stuck. When we know it is ok, and understand that there is nothing ‘wrong’ with us, we are more likely to listen to our body and take its advice. PS cats make great buddies when we are feeling low 😉
- Stay connected – as with anyone who wants to sustain a healthy life, connection is key, we call it mutuality, and it is at the roots of the peer coaching tree. Being part of a healthy community is vital to our wellbeing, particularly when we are feeling low.
- Even if it is just a daily phone call to a friend or family member, it will make us feel better to have that connection with another human being
- Even better, pop out and meet someone at the garden centre or café, for a tea or coffee
- Have a purposeful activity – as with mutuality being essential to our wellbeing, at the top of the tree, is purposefulness, the thing that drives us forward and literally gets us out of bed every day.
- If you have a hobby or like to play a type of sport, ensure that continue with it, or take it up again. Better still, find a club related to your hobby.
- Get out and help others – service and purposefulness go hand in hand. What we do know is that helping someone else gets our own head out of our own a**e (to be blunt), and focused on someone else. It’s a very quick way to change our emotional state and many organisations recognise its importance eg the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous give newcomers ‘service’ for example, making the tea, putting out the chairs, or looking after the books. So, if you are thinking ‘no way, I’m far too ‘ill’ to do that’ just imagine the state of someone who is one day off drinking 100 units of alcohol per day for several years (yes, I have been there !!)
- Phone a friend and ask how they are. Yup, this is the quickest way to remove proverbial head ….. and combines it with connection, another 2-in-1 !
I have covered quite a lot here, already, so I will finish now. There are many many more ways to reduce symptoms of low mood during the winter, just not enough space to fit them in here. Of course, these methods can be used to treat any form of low mood.
The important thing to remember is that you may need to try out a few different combinations before you find the approach that works best for you. Also remember that you should visit your GP before making any big lifestyle changes and check before taking anything new, this post is not a substitute for medical advice.
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