Fighting the winter blues
Seasonal low mood or depression is a recognised medical condition, believed to be due to an imbalance in neurotransmitters, particularly serotonin, melatonin and dopamine. This imbalance can perhaps be linked to a lack of Vitamin D, the so-called ‘sunshine’ vitamin, which is needed to produce these important brain chemicals.
As the temperature drops and summer holidays become a distant memory, it’s common to feel a little down.
Sunlight plays an integral role in making us feel vibrant, happy and alive, so when the days get shorter and the sunshine disappears, many people struggle with low mood or a feeling of lethargy and lack of motivation.
Depression is a multi-factorial condition, however, a number of studies have noted a link between low Vitamin D status and prevalence of depression. Others have identified an improvement in depression symptoms with Vitamin D supplementation.
The miracle vitamin
A fat-soluble vitamin that functions like a hormone, Vitamin D performs thousands of essential functions in the body, from supporting our immune system to keeping our bones strong. It also plays a particularly important role in supporting brain function, memory, clear thinking and mood. You can get it in small amounts from certain foods, but the primary source is sunlight.
Getting enough Vitamin D is easy in the summer months, but in the depths of winter, it can be difficult to meet our needs, meaning many people may unknowingly be deficient.
The feel-good hormones
Our brain relies on a complex range of chemicals to help us think clearly, learn and retain new information, and go about our daily lives. Some of these chemicals are responsible for balancing our mood and making us feel happy:
- Dopamine affects our emotions, movements and our sensations of pleasure and pain. Low levels of dopamine can contribute to feelings of depression.
- Serotonin is our happiness neuro transmitter. Playing an integral role in mood, sleep, appetite, memory, learning, love and attraction, it’s a neurotransmitter you want lots of!
- Melatonin is our sleep hormone, helping us fall and stay asleep.
Keeping these chemicals in balance is integral to feeling happy. Fortunately, if you are feeling low, or you’re just not yourself, there is plenty you can do to boost your mood and bring back that zest for life.
Eat yourself happy
If you are anything like me, at the first sign of winter I’m curled up indoors with a slice of apple pie and a glass of pinot noir. Trouble is, three months of hearty carbs and sugar can wreck havoc with your waistline! Fortunately, there are plenty of healthy comfort food options. Skip the apple pie and pinot noir and get into slow-cooked meat stews, spiced vegetable curries, cottage pie, roast chicken and vegetables.
If you are feeling low, certain nutrients can actually help support mood and beat depression. Tryptophan is an amino acid that is the precursor to both serotonin and melatonin, our feel good and sleep neurotransmitters. Boost your tryptophan levels with turkey, cottage cheese, fish, bananas, oats, chickpeas, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, yoghurt, and happily, chocolate.
B Vitamins are equally important for feeling good, giving us energy, help us manage stress and boost mood. B6 is particularly important, as it works with tryptophan to produce serotonin and melatonin. Meet your daily needs with brewers yeast or yeast spreads, pork, eggs, molasses, bananas, meat, chicken and avocado.
Heading out for a run might be the last thing you feel like doing when it’s chilly outside, but exercise not only helps prevent winter weight gain, it actually helps lift mood. Swap the Netflix marathon for a yoga class, gym session or brisk walk with a friend – you’ll feel better for it!
Exercise outside and you'll get an even greater boost - studies have shown that outdoor exercise eases depression symptoms more than indoor exercise.. But if you can’t bear the cold, there are plenty of fun activities you can do indoors that will raise your heart rate, build muscle and get you smiling again. Youtube is packed with workouts you can do at home – without even getting out of your pyjamas!
Let the sunshine in
How good do you feel after a day at the beach? Or a long walk in the sun? It’s not just coincidence, turns out sunshine really does make us happier.
Get outdoors with face, arms and legs exposed for 15-30 minutes every day to get your Vitamin D fix. Go for a walk before work, read a book in a sunny spot, grab your colleagues and eat lunch outdoors. If you are struggling to get outside every day, consider a supplement. A number of Vitamin D supplements are available on the market, containing Vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) or D3 (cholecalciferol). Ideally choose supplements containing Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) as this is the active form. In fact, Vitamin D3 may be as much as three-times more potent than Vitamin D2. The standard recommended dose for Vitamin D is between 800IU and 1000IU daily, with a current upper limit of 2000IU daily.
Resist the urge to hibernate
Fight the lethargy this winter and try something new! Volunteer, join a night class or meet-up group, try a new recipe, learn a language, try a new gym class, join a book club…Doing something new always reinvigorates us. There a literally thousands of ways to enrich your life and open your mind.
Being around others makes us feel happier and connected, so make time to catch up with friends. Winter evenings are the perfect excuse for potluck dinners.
Winter isn’t all bad. Although it means the end of beach time and bikinis, the longer evenings and cooler days are a perfect opportunity to take things a bit slower and enjoy a quieter pace of life.
Savour the chance to laze in bed all morning reading a book, or curling up and watching a movie while the wind howls outside. Embrace warm woolly socks and chic winter fashion. Spend a whole rainy day baking, then invite friends over for afternoon tea and catch up.
The Danish (who live with a particularly long, cold winter) have coined the word ‘Hygge’ to describe this sentiment of slowness and comfort. There is no direct equivalent in English, but coziness or contentedness is probably close.
 Penckofer, S., Kouba, J. Byrn, M. and Estwing Ferrans, C. Vitamin D and Depression: Where is all the Sunshine? Issues Ment Health Nurs. 2010 Jun; 31(6): 385–393.
 Jorde R, Sneve M, Figenschau Y, Svartberg J, Waterloo K. Effects of vitamin D supplementation on symptoms of depression in overweight and obese subjects: randomized double blind trial. J Intern Med. 2008 Dec; 264(6):599-609.
 Diehl DJ, Gershon S. The role of dopamine in mood disorders. Compr Psychiatry. 1992 Mar-Apr;33(2):115-20.
 Frühauf A., Niedermeie, A., Elliot, L., Ledochowski, L., Marksteiner, J. and Kopp, M. Acute effects of outdoor physical activity on affect and psychological well-being in depressed patients – A preliminary study. Mental and Physical Activity, Vol 10, March 2016 (4-9).
 Logan, A. Omega-3 Fatty Acids and major depression: A primer for the mental health professional. Lipds Health Dis.2004 3:25
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