I often say I am solar-powered. Like many who like the sunshine and being outdoors in it, winter brings a range of changes to my lifestyle and inevitably my mood. We refer to this as the ‘winter blues’.
The reality is that humans are evolutionally predisposed to be diurnal (daytime) animals and are still acutely sensitive to the effects of changes in light and routine, even with our modern lifestyle. If you experience the winter blues, don’t worry – you’re not alone. Many people experience a lowered mood in the darker and colder months.
Why humans experience the winter blues
There are a range of reasons why we may experience the winter blues. These include perhaps getting less exercise (it’s hard to want to walk in the rain for many of us), changing our eating habits (we tend to eat heavier and more processed foods in winter) and of course… the very fundamental impact of light.
Every day our body clock is reset by light. This happens because melatonin (the hormone of sleep) is shut off by morning light.
Resetting our circadian clock is particularly important for our mood. In fact, many years back I did a PhD on the impacts of melatonin sensitivity on mood disorders. These effects can be pretty significant.
You may have heard that in some Scandinavian countries, the lack of light during their long winters (can you believe in the middle of winter they get only around 90 minutes of daylight each day?) can lead to a type of depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Many people in Australia may experience SAD and many more have more mild changes in mood. Interestingly, one of the best treatments for SAD is bright-light therapy where someone sits in front of a very bright light box each day to ensure the rhythm is reset.
How to avoid the winter blues
For the rest of us, the best way to maintain a positive mood in the darker and colder months is to continue getting some sunlight each day. This can be hard, especially if you go into the office and leave in darkness. However, try to make it work. Even a half hour walk at lunch will be enough sunlight and exercise to have an impact on your mood.
In addition to this, we can become a bit more mindful to nourish our body with healthy foods which have their own mood-boosting effects and take some time out of our schedule each day to do things we enjoy with people we want to spend time with.
It’s important that as humans we don’t hibernate in the cold months. Deliberately keeping to a good routine can train our body clocks to stay in sync. This also means no warm two-hour sleep-ins on the weekends.
As always, if you do notice a significant drop in mood, it’s important to get support from those around you. If these continue or worsen, consider discussing how you feel with your GP and perhaps a mental health professional to learn new strategies to manage your mood during the darker months.
There’s a great quote that describes how important keeping in sync is by the famous psychiatrist Robert Burton. It goes like this: “Our body is like a clock; if one wheel be amiss, all the rest are disordered and the whole suffers. With such admirable art and harmony is a man composed”.
With this in mind, perhaps we should all take the season as our chance to take extra care of ourselves. That way, we can avoid the winter blues and spring into spring come September.
About Dr Karen Hallam
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