How not to let winter affect your mood

Each year in winter, about 3% of the British population will suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and a further 20% will be affected by a subsyndromal SAD, also called ‘winter blues’. 

Women seem to be more affected than men, men tend to have more severe symptoms, and younger people have a higher risk than older adults. 

What are the symptoms?

Common symptoms include:

  • Tiredness or low energy.
  • Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates, leading to 
  • weight gain.
  • Anxiety attack.
  • Irritability.
  • Oversleeping or sleeping too much.
  • Problems getting along with other people.
  • Hypersensitivity to rejection.

What are the causes?

The exact cause has not been found but it seems to be a multifactorial condition that includes the body’s internal clock and certain hormones.

Circadian rhythm. The reduced level of sunlight in the seasons autumn and winter may disrupt your body’s internal clock (circadian rhythm), leading to feelings of low mood or depression.

Serotonin. The reduced sunlight can also cause a drop in serotonin, the brain neurotransmitter that affects mood.

Melatonin. The change in season can also disrupt the balance of the body’s level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood. 

What helps relieve the symptoms?

From a holistic perspective Bright Light Therapy (BLT), which is a 10,000 lux light box used 30-60 minutes each day, seems to be effective for people suffering from SAD. 

From a nutritional point of view a number of food and supplement choices can help improve the symptoms:

Diet: try not giving in to high carbohydrates and high GI foods, and instead chose low GI foods and have animal proteins. This will help stabilise your blood sugar levels and prevent cravings, low energy and weight gain. A study found a positive correlation between vegetarians and people suffering from SAD.

Eat a rainbow of fresh fruits and vegetable daily. Have at least five portions every day. Most fruits and vegetables have a low glycemic index and have a wide variety of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. This helps keep you full and healthy without any side effect.

Optimise your vitamin D levels. Vitamin D deficiency alone can explain low energy and depression. In the UK people tend to be chronically low on vitamin D because of the lack of sunshine throughout the year, and/or the lack of time we spend outdoors absorbing this vitamin through our skin. A simple blood test can confirm your levels.

Increase your omega-3 fatty acids food intake (oily fish such as salmon, sardine, mackerel, anchovies, herring, but also flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts) and consider taking a high strength supplement. Omega-3 deficiency has been linked to a number of mood symptoms (including anxiety, irritability, depression, mood swings) and energy and sleep-related issues.

Consider investing in good multivitamins and minerals with high levels of B-vitamins complex, magnesium and chromium. In an ideal world, we would get all our nutrients from foods. But in our society, our diet tends to be less than perfect, often resorting to quick foods low in nutrients, and the food we buy also tends to have less nutrients than decades earlier due to intensive farming. This is why it is important sometimes to replenish our reserves with good supplements. The B vitamin complex are often considered as the energy vitamins. Chromium has been found effective in blood sugar regulation and helping prevent cravings. Magnesium is essential for more than 300 metabolism reactions of the human body and is very effective to calm and relax moods. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Nutritionist Resource are reviewed by our editorial team.

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