S.A.D (Seasonal Affective Disorder) or ‘Winter Depression’ is real, and we feel your struggle.
To help tackle the issue, let’s dive into what is actually happening within our neurology and physiology when we are deprived of sunlight for a proportion of the year, then we can address some ways in which we can reduce the side effects, and improve mood.
It is thought that our hypothalamus (a central gland within the brain which regulates various conditions in the body such as temperature, hunger levels, blood pressure and even stress level) is under more pressure when light exposure depletes. Animals, and even plants have a natural internal body clock (the circadian rhythm). However, when our environment starts shifting (light and temperature change) our body is provoked to adapt & adjust which in turn creates symptoms.
Naturally, our body increases serotonin production (a neurotransmitter responsible for mood) when we are exposed to sunlight. Serotonin plays a role in how our brain and nervous system communicate. Not only does it stabilise mood, but it also affects your digestive system and, you guessed it – sleep. That’s right, serotonin converts to melatonin (the sleep hormone) – they work hand in hand. Melatonin is released when our light exposure depletes – this happens every 24 hours and determines our daily routine. In the summer months, this relationship works beautifully – the more serotonin produced in the daytime, the more melatonin you have at night. This is because both serotonin and melatonin production heavily rely on a nutrient called tryptophan and tryptophan relies heavily on vitamin D, ie, sun.
Therefore, it makes sense that when we have lower levels of serotonin in winter months, we feel blue, tired, our sleep is affected, and our body clock is generally just a bit all over the place. This can be extremely frustrating, and lots of individuals who suffer tend to beat themselves up as they lack motivation – for obvious reasons. During this time, there is an increased chance that we may reach for that sugary, high carb food or alcoholic beverage. This is a dangerous cycle as these groups further reduce the production of serotonin and in turn, affect our sleep.
So what happens, if hypothetically we defied our natural body clock? Incoming - jet lag.
When we travel, especially long haul, our bodies are under immense stress as they are presented with the demanding (somewhat impossible) task of quickly adapting their internal clock. We all know that awful feeling of physical exhaustion and brain fog. We are also far more likely to exude states of high emotion and a reduction of rationality during this process. Our body has to later repeat this uncomfortable journey when we jump on our return flight (not to put you off travelling, just to give you an insight). This is of course, an extreme example of our body clock under pressure, but mimics what happens when seasons change, and some people have a more difficult time adjusting.
We know what you’re thinking, “Okay all this information but what is the answer?!” And as much as we would like to tell you that you could hibernate during winter, we need to be somewhat productive even when it’s dark outside (or at least try to be) – so, let’s jump into some options and ways to minimise these unwanted symptoms.
Meditation and massage:
Massage and meditation are proven to help increase serotonin levels while decreasing levels of cortisol (the stress hormone). So, if and when possible, give yourself five minutes before you get out of bed to set your intentions for the day, and five minutes before bed to bring your attention back to your body and wind down. If you can go as far as to whack a cheeky massage in mid-week, all the better!
Sufficient amount of exercise is a vital part of our overall health and well-being, but it also has the ability to trigger the release of tryptophan into the bloodstream which increases serotonin and melatonin production. We know the motivation to exercise is difficult in the winter but the more you exercise, the more motivation you will have to exercise!
So tryptophan relies on vitamin D – therefore one of the best ways to modulate the production and release of serotonin and melatonin is through the consumption of vitamin D. Omega-3s are also incredibly important. They have been shown to improve brain performance due to their effect in regulating our serotonin levels. Magnesium is also associated with better sleep so including foods rich in this mineral can be helpful.
Low quality refined foods, foods with poor quality fats and foods high in sugar, and we said it – alcohol – can trigger low mental wellbeing and issues with sleep. So try to keep the consumption of these to a minimum.
Foods to include:
Foods to avoid:
- Tofu & Tempeh
- Turkey & chicken
- Pumpkin seeds
- Cottage cheese
- Semi-ripe bananas
- Hard & fatty Cheese
- Spicy food
- Excessive animal protein
(Last but not least) Routine:
Attempting to keep a structured routine in place during the winter months helps to regulate your body clock and keep your hypothalamus in check. Timing when you eat, work, exercise, meditate, sleep (repeat) can massively improve your lifestyle and mood during the dark winter months.
As always, we wish you the best, and hope that this information will bring you a little closer to an improved, healthier and happier version of yourself.
POW Team x