Winter is most definitely on its way and for some of us the dark days and cold weather are reflected in our mood at this time of year. In fact, many of us in the UK report experiencing some degree of the ‘Winter Blues’.
Symptoms include less energy, lack of motivation, low mood and the urge to stay in bed and hide away. This is due to the fact that as animals, we are genetically programmed to go into hibernation mode at this time of year, so it is completely natural to feel like slowing down. Some simple lifestyle ‘tweaks’ can be all it takes to re-energise and lift you up again. Here is my advice on how to look after your mind, body and soul, to get you bouncing through to spring.
Exercise is Key!
A 35-minute brisk walk five times per week has been shown in studies to help with mild to moderate depression. The great thing is you can squeeze this into your lunch hour so don’t have to make time for more time-consuming activities like the gym. Exercising in the middle of the day (or first thing in the morning) and being outside are also more beneficial, due to the exposure to natural daylight.
Any form of cardiovascular exercise gets your heart pumping, improves circulation, which helps prevent cold hands and feet and will also raise your core body temperature. It also releases happy brain chemicals, which is why it has this amazing mood-lifting effect.
When it is raining or just too miserable to go outside, don’t use this as an excuse to ditch the exercise! Instead, try exercising at home if you simply can’t face leaving the house – there are plenty of workout videos on-line. Another option is to try hot yoga or hot Pilates as a guaranteed way to warm up fast!
Don’t be tempted to hide away, making the effort to go out and see people will increase your sense of connectedness and well being. Research has proven that people with stronger social networks are healthier and happier, so arrange a trip to the cinema, go ice-skating or invite friends round for some home-cooked, warming food.
Taking up a new hobby has been shown to help people with seasonal depression by providing both a distraction and enjoyment. It could be something crafty like knitting, something musical such as singing or playing an instrument or something active such as a dance class.
It may be tempting to over-indulge in comfort foods at this time of year, but being mindful of what you eat is especially important during winter to help your immune system fight off bugs. It will also help prevent that dreaded feeling in January when you realise your jeans won’t do up. Instead of using winter as an excuse to fill up on junk food, indulge in healthy, warming, comfort foods like soups, stews and porridge. See my Autumn Foods post for some recipe inspiration (Link to Autumn foods and recipes).
Fill Up on Healthy Carbs
Most of us crave carbohydrates more when it’s cold, because we need the energy they provide to help keep us warm. Include healthy carbohydrate foods with all your meals, especially at breakfast and lunch to fuel you through your day. For breakfast porridge is my ‘go-to’ winter warmer at this time of year, I love experimenting with different delicious toppings. My current favourites are fig and chocolate (Recipe here) and coconut, banana and almond butter. Other healthy carbs to include are rye bread, buckwheat, sugar-free mueslis and granolas, oatcakes, sweet potatoes, barley, quinoa, pulses, wholegrain rice and wild rice.
The Sunshine Vitamin
Vitamin D is essential for helping ward off depression and keeping our immune systems strong. 90% of our total vitamin D comes from the action of sunlight on the skin, but unfortunately from October to April, the light is not of the correct wavelength for stimulating any vitamin D production! If we build up adequate stores during the rest of the year it should carry us through, but many of us don’t and become deficient during winter. It is therefore advisable to include plenty of oily fish in your diet, which are the best dietary source of vitamin D. Mushrooms, eggs, some fortified foods, soya and dairy also contain small amounts. You could also include a supplement during winter as an ‘insurance policy’, especially if you’ve had limited sun exposure for any reason or have dark skin.
Raise the happy Serotonin
Eating foods containing the amino acid tryptophan in combination with healthy carbs (see above) will help your body to produce the happy chemical serotonin. The best food sources of tryptophan are pumpkin, sunflower, and sesame seeds, hazelnuts, almonds, spinach and other green leafy vegetables, chicken, turkey, tofu, bananas, avocado and lentils. Include some of these every day, especially in the evenings, as they will also aid restful sleep.
Your sense of smell is directly linked to the limbic system in the brain, which affects emotions, so you can use scents to lift your mood. Citrus smells like orange and lime are uplifting, while ginger and basil are energising. Clary sage is great for soothing the nerves and aiding deep and restful sleep.
Music is another great way to lift your mood and research backs this up, finding that music can actually raise levels of the reward chemical dopamine in the brain by 9%. Dedicate yourself a few minutes every day. Put on your favorite music and relax while enjoying your daily Beauty & Go!
Some people find that light therapy can really help at this time of year. You can use a light box emitting bright light during the day to boost energy and mood. Alarm clocks are also available which simulate sunrise, making getting up when it’s still dark a little easier.
Research has found that staying warm can reduce the winter blues by a whopping 50%! Eating warm foods, plenty of hot drinks and wearing warm clothes will all help.
If your symptoms are more serious or are getting in the way of leading a normal life, it could be a sign of Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD, a type of seasonal depression thought to affect about 2 million people in the UK. If you think you might have SAD or are feeling depressed, please go and see your GP for advice.