Nutrition: How to beat the winter blues
IF YOU find that the shorter days and darker nights leave you a little depressed, you’re not alone. ‘Winter blues’, or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), is thought to affect around 1 in 15 people in Ireland.
Although the signs and symptoms are similar to those of depression, the difference with SAD is that it affects people in the fall and winter and improves when the seasons change in the spring. For some people, SAD can be a slight difference in energy levels and mood, but for others this time of year can be debilitating.
The exact cause of SAD is not fully known, but the fact that the condition is linked to reduced daylight during the shorter days of fall and winter gives us some clues. One theory is that it affects the hypothalamus and the balance of melatonin and serotonin.
Melatonin is produced in greater amounts in people with SAD. It’s our sleep hormone. Serotonin is produced in lower quantities, affecting our mood, appetite and sleep.
Our internal clock or circadian rhythm is affected by natural light levels, so changes in daylight can alter the messages our bodies receive from nature about when we should be awake or asleep.
Symptoms of SAD include persistent low mood, loss of pleasure or interest in daily activities, irritability, lethargy and feeling sleepy during the day, sleeping longer than normal and having more trouble getting up in the morning, overeating and craving carbs.
It’s important to talk to your GP if you have SAD, but here are some dietary and lifestyle adaptations that may be helpful for all of us at this time of year:
:: INVEST IN A DAYLIGHT ALARM
These alarms mimic the effects of daylight, so we wake up more naturally, rather than to the beep or buzz of an alarm. It’s a more natural way to wake up and can help manage feelings of stress and anxiety, as well as mood and energy throughout the day.
:: CONNECTING WITH NATURE AND THE CYCLE OF THE SEASONS
Get out as much as you can. Complete your daylight quota by going out in the morning and early hours of the day. Go for a walk, ride a bike to work, or make sure to go out for half an hour at lunchtime, whatever the weather. The more daylight we can have at the start of the day, the better. This helps reset and rebalance our sleep-wake cycle, so we’re less likely to feel tired during the day and more likely to get a good night’s sleep later.
:: START YOUR DAY WITH A PROTEIN-BASED MEAL
It can help you feel more energized and help balance blood sugar levels, reducing the cravings for refined carbs and sugar that can drop your energy levels and drain your mood. Add a tablespoon of seeds to your porridge, start your day with eggs or opt for plain yogurt as a base for your breakfast.
:: DROP THE SUGAR AND FORGET THE REFINED CARBS
These foods will deplete your energy levels, break your mood, and leave you craving for more. Break the vicious sugar cycle and choose foods and snacks that have a longer lasting effect on mood and energy levels. If you feel peckish between meals, snack on nuts, oatcakes and cheese or a little dark chocolate.
:: CONTINUE YOUR DAILY EXERCISE AND GET OUT IF YOU CAN
Aim for 30 minutes of movement each day. Do something you enjoy, whether it’s gardening for half an hour or wrapping up and going for a brisk walk. Find an outdoor circuit class or join your local Park Run to hang out rather than working out at a gym.
:: SUPPLEMENT YOUR DIET
A decent multivitamin with B vitamins and a little extra vitamin D3 can be helpful this time of year.