6 Ways to Handle the Winter Blues
15 November 2018
Perhaps you have felt a little out of sorts this winter since the clocks went back, or more tired and less energised than usual. If so, you have your circadian rhythm to blame.
Also known as the ‘body clock’ or ‘biological clock’, the circadian rhythm refers to the many physical, mental and behavioural changes within you that run on a daily cycle. They are prompted and governed mainly by light, although other environmental elements can also contribute. Almost every living organism has a circadian rhythm – animals, plants, and even many tiny microbes.
In humans the body clock controls the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, as well as hormone release, eating habits, and other important functions. When your eyes are exposed to light, melatonin levels drop and your brain switches into ‘awake’ mode; in low light levels melatonin production increases, signalling the body to prepare for sleep. However, modern lifestyles, human tampering with the clock (time is a construct anyhow!), and the prevalence of light-emitting technology in our lives all interfere with our natural rhythms in ways which can be disruptive and damaging. You’ll notice that in the winter you are more likely to feel tired and lacking in energy – this is because the shorter daylight hours and longer periods of darkness mean that your body spends longer producing melatonin. This then has a knock-on effect on serotonin levels – the ones that keep you alert and happy – leaving you feeling lethargic and demotivated. Just what we need!
Almost all circadian rhythm disruption is man-made: jet lag; shift work; blue light from phones; televisions and computer screens; artificial light in our homes, offices and streets; inefficient eating schedules; and enforced daily work routines which don’t line up with our natural cycles. An interrupted or irregular circadian rhythm has been linked to both physical and mental conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, seasonal depression, obesity, diabetes and sleep disorders including insomnia. Studies have also found that traffic accidents and workplace injuries increase in frequency when we change the clocks in spring and autumn. The good news is that as these disruptions are created by us, we also have the power to remove, adapt, or work around them.
1. Breakfast like a king; lunch like a prince; dine like a pauper.
Research has suggested that our bodies function optimally when we align our eating patterns with our circadian rhythms. Dr Satchin Panda told the New York Times that “the average person eats over a 15-hour or longer period each day”, including snacking and grazing, which conflicts with our biological rhythms. Eating at a time of day when you are not getting sun exposure can cause your body clock to fall out of sync – think of it as though your digestive system and biological rhythm are operating in different time zones. The result is that conflicting signals are sent to your metabolism, which in turn plays havoc with your digestive system and your ability to effectively use, store and burn energy. Dr Panda recommends doing all of your eating for the day within an 8-10 hour period, preferably during daylight hours.
2. Blue light from phones
You’ve probably heard plenty of advice around cutting out phone and computer screens as you wind down to bed time, but why? Phone, television and computer screens emit a white-blue light, which has been proven to be effective in promoting wakefulness via light therapy in winter. This is great, but not when your natural rhythm and the light outside are telling you it’s time to wind down. When we expose ourselves selectively and in concentrated periods to the harsh white-blue light of technology in the dark evenings, we confuse the light receptors in our eyes which regulate our circadian rhythm. Many newer devices now have a built-in ‘night light’ mode, which enables you to increase the warmth of the light on your computer or phone screen in the evenings so that you avoid this artificial wakefulness. If you must use technology after dark, make sure that you activate this mode where possible. If your device doesn’t have this setting you can simulate it with warm-coloured screen protectors or overlays, or adjust the monitor colour settings on your computer or TV screen.
3. Vitamin D supplements
As a dark, rainy country it is difficult for Brits to get enough vitamin D from sunshine. Vitamin D is responsible for bone health and overall health and mental wellbeing. You can get vitamin D by eating oily fish, egg yolks and dark leafy greens, but the NHS and Public Health England released new advice in 2016 which advised that “it is difficult to get enough [vitamin D] from food alone”, and that “roughly one in five people has low vitamin D levels”. They recommend taking a daily supplement of 10mcg, particularly through autumn and winter, “in order to protect musculoskeletal health”.
4. SAD lamps and daylight alarm clocks
Recent studies have proven that SAD lamps – lamps that mimic sunlight by emitting bright white-blue light – are effective in correcting mood disorders associated with disruption of circadian rhythm when they are scheduled to match the body clock. Natural light simulators in the form of daylight or sunrise alarm clocks were also proven to be effective, as they mimic the natural pace and brightness of a sunrise at the time you need to wake. This brings you gently and naturally out of sleep, so that your 7am alarm isn’t quite so jarring in the dark winter mornings. If you wake in darkness, the absence of light signals your body to keep producing melatonin. This suppresses active thyroid hormone and serotonin, which are essential for energy and wakefulness. Your mood, appetite, and energy levels are all affected by this, making you feel groggy and low. Being brought gently into wakefulness by gradual sunrise simulation helps to bypass this feeling during the darker mornings in winter and encourages your body to kick-start into “awake” mode sooner.
5. Make like the Scandinavians
In the northernmost reaches of Scandinavia winter means less than 4 hours of daylight each day, from sunrise to sunset, including dawn and dusk. Tromsø in Norway, which sits above the Arctic circle, experiences 49 days per year where the sun never rises over the horizon. Despite this, Tromsø’s inhabitants display far lower levels of seasonal depression than you would expect from a town where the sun sets in November and rises in January, then experiences permanent daytime between roughly April and August. The key to northern Scandinavians’ tolerance to having their circadian rhythm so jarringly flipped around throughout the year is that they keep active and still go outside as much as possible. Rather than hibernating all winter long, they embrace the season with its coldness and darkness and view it as a time for skiing, bonfires, and cosiness. The Swedish saying ‘det finns inget dåligt väder, bara dåliga kläder’ means ‘there is no bad weather, only bad clothing’ – this perfectly sums up the Scandinavian attitude to winter. Get outside as much as possible, during both daylight and darkness.
6. Support your immune system
It might be the last thing you want to do, but make sure you keep active and exercise throughout winter. Maintain your immune system, eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, get adjusted regularly and drink plenty of water – supporting your body in its essentials will mean that it is well-equipped to adapt to changes in season, weather and time.
This article provides advice around the generalised feeling of slightly lower-than-usual energy and mood during the autumn and winter months known as ‘winter blues’. This does not and should not replace professional medical advice around mental health disorders such as depression (including seasonal depression), seasonal affective disorder, or any other mental health disorders associated with seasonality. If you think you are suffering with any of these disorders, please contact a healthcare professional.