Updated: Feb 1
When the clocks go back and the nights draw in, everything can feel a bit more difficult, right? Somehow, when it’s sunny and warm outside, jumping out of bed for that yoga class feels do-able. But when it’s dark and wet and we are cozy in bed...gosh it can feel like a struggle. Even getting fresh air can feel harder when the heating is on and we’re toasty inside.
Many of the things we do in summer which make us feel good - spending time outside, eating good food, connecting with friends, moving more - feel harder to do in winter. We feel less energetic because of the dark so we do less of the things which make us feel good, which reduces our energy even further and so the vicious cycle goes on...
The severity of this effect can vary from person to person - some may feel a mild dip in energy levels, while others can develop Major Depression with Seasonal Pattern (formerly known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, SAD). Wherever you may be on this spectrum, it may be useful to know that the trigger for your symptoms isn’t in your head… the shorter days have a real physiological effect on our bodies.
The Circadian Rhythm is our internal body clock which responds to the cycle of day and night, by waking us up when it gets light, and preparing us for sleep when it gets dark. As the season changes and we face more dark hours, this clock can get disrupted, leaving us feeling groggy and disorientated. This effect is often compounded by our bodies making more melatonin (the hormone which helps us sleep) in response to the darkness.
Less sunlight can also affect our bodies ability to make serotonin, our calming and mood-boosting hormone. Sunlight cues areas of the retina in our eyes which triggers the release of serotonin (2). So, when we have less sunlight we can experience lower levels of this hormone which is associated with Major Depression with Seasonal Pattern.
Whilst it might feel that things are a bit stacked against us during the winter months there are steps we can all take to improve our energy levels throughout this season:
1. Get as much as light as you can.
If you can’t bear to leave the house in the morning, put your eyes right up to your windows as soon as the sun comes up. If you work in an office, a factory or a shop, make sure you step outside at lunchtime for a walk around the block. The more light we can get, the better our bodies will be at producing serotonin and reaching a comfortable circadian rhythm.
2. Supplement with Vitamin D.
In countries like the UK, most people do not get the vitamin D that they need over the winter months due to the lack of sunshine, so it’s important to top it up. As Vitamin D is vital for healthy brain function, it has been shown statistically that people with low levels of vitamin D are at a greater risk of depression (3).
3. Move your body early.
Just 10 minutes of exercise can make us feel better as it triggers our body to release feel-good endorphins and doing this in the morning gives you energy for the day ahead. This is a great one to combine with getting natural light - try taking a brisk walk outside before work or do a workout in the garden.
4. Make simple food shifts...
...which leave you feeling nourished and energised rather than sluggish. Continue to enjoy pasta or rice but re-balance your usual quantities - have just a bit of the starchy stuff and fill the rest of your plate with healthy protein, fat and veggies. Switch white potato for sweet potato or white bread for wholemeal sourdough. Eating smaller quantities of complex carbohydrates will mean our blood sugar is much more likely to be stable, so we don’t get the spikes and then energy slumps associated with large amounts of refined carbohydrates.
5. Take pleasure in slowing down.
One of the massive benefits of winter is that it gives us an opportunity to take things more slowly. There is less pressure to go out every weekend or tick off the endless jobs around the house. As a homebody I love nothing more than hibernating on a Saturday night in front of Strictly, but even for those of you who are more extroverted, this can be a great time to allow your body some rest. Humans simply weren’t designed to be on-the-go all the time, so your body will thank you for the opportunity to re-charge.