Low Winter Moods
Winter can often be a hard time of the year mood wise. For some people, it’s accompanied by a lower mood than during the lighter months of the year. Looking at what may cause such a change in mood, it is evident that there are a number of different of factors involved. These include lifestyle changes such as isolation, reduced physical exercise, changes in nutrition and fewer interactions with people throughout the winter months. As psychologists however, we often meet people who cannot seem to explain why they feel more flat, unmotivated, low and very tired. Sometimes it sneaks in gradually, but for some it feels more as thought a switch has turned all of a sudden.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) commonly has an onset during fall and can linger around to the start of spring, sometimes longer. SAD is a form of depression that is related to the seasonal changes in the level of daylight we have access to, and has an effect on our circadian rhythm, D vitamin levels, lifestyle and hence our mood.
In the northern hemisphere this is a known phenomenon arising from the lack of daylight. There it is not uncommon to see people visiting “light cafes” where they sit in front of specially designed lamps thought to correct the delays in our circadian rhythm during the winter months. Others may supplement with vitamin D as an additional measure, as the ultraviolet-B rays are more limited in winter which impacts of the absorption of D vitamin. Some may see a therapist to get some extra support. Hence, if low winter moods are a common pattern for you, it can be wise to see your health practitioner for an overall “warrant of fitness” to check levels of important nutrients and minerals, particularly in the lead up to winter.
The characteristics of SAD are the same as major depression but they normally subside with the change in seasons. People may notice some or all of the following symptoms:
- Lack of energy and motivation
- Low mood
- Sleeping too much and difficulty waking up in the morning
- Feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness
- Loss of interest in activities they would normally enjoy
- Difficulties in focusing and making decisions
- Thoughts of death and suicidal ideation
- Withdrawal from social interactions
- Some may experienced a reduced libido
- Increased sense of agitation
- Changes in appetite and craving carbohydrates more than during other times of the year
However, there are a number of things you can do during the winter months to improve mood. Although looking after ourselves is important at all times of the year, it can be wise for those more prone to lower winter moods to plan ahead, and do some preparation when we’re feeling more at ease.
One such solution is to create some good, simple and realistic routines; creating opportunities for social interactions, focusing on nutrition or engaging in forms of exercise that are not limited to the summer months. Your local community centre will have a good overview of what activities and workshops are available in your area.
It is also wise to try and get as much daylight as possible. Get outside, go for a walk, visit a friend, enjoy a cup of tea in the sun.
Since changes in thinking commonly accompanies low mood it may also be useful to learn about unhelpful thinking and how we can change it to become more rational, balanced and helpful. This has a great impact on how we feel and behave accordingly. Helpful information can be found online, or visiting a therapist can also be useful.
Get some social support, talk to a friend, a family member or a professional about it. Reducing social isolation is a preventative measure, and helps prevent low mood. Some people may experience loneliness which further impacts this. Things like attending a Meetup, joining a community group or doing some volunteering may help with this.
Improving the moment! In the northern hemisphere people sometimes turn the focus towards working alongside the darkness rather than beating it. Making it cosy so that they can better manage the darker months of the year is a common theme. Lighting the fire, or some candles, wrapping up in a nice big blanket with a good book, nice music and a cup of tea is one example of this. In Norway they refer to this atmosphere as ‘koselig’, in Denmark they call it ‘hygge’ and in Sweden they call it ‘mysigt’. Google these terms and you may get some ideas of how you may be able to work with the darkness to improve your mood.
Alongside the psycho-social aspects that are important to address, there are a variety of natural supplements and dietary modifications that can offer additional benefits for people suffering from SAD. Your naturopath will be able to help support you to find the right approach for your needs.
In people with SAD, serotonin, our “happy” hormone may be depleted. Low levels of serotonin are linked with poor mood and depression. 5HTP is a safe and effective supplement that helps to stabilize levels of serotonin in the brain, and can have a hugely positive impact on mood and anxiety.
The herb St John’s Wort is also an excellent mood enhancer and has been proven in clinical studies to be effective in the treatment of SAD. It works through modulating a number of our brain neurotransmitters which are associated with mood and motivation, including serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine.
Although both 5HTP and St John’s Wort are very safe, there is the possibility of interaction with other medications, particularly anti-depressants, so please see your naturopath or holistic doctor before taking either of these therapies.
Nutritional support can also prove highly beneficial. As mentioned above, Vitamin D deficiency is considered a key causative factor in SAD. Your best source of vitamin D is of course sunlight, so if you can manage to book in a sunny winter vacation then you will certainly reap the rewards! However, if this isn’t a possibility, then you may well benefit from a daily supplement through the winter months. Dosage needs to be adjusted according to needs. Therefore having your levels checked is recommended. Foods only contain low levels of vitamin D and cannot generally be relied on to boost your levels. Cold water fish such as cod, salmon and sardines are your best sources, while cow’s milk, eggs and shiitake mushrooms also contain limited amounts.
Other nutrients that can help those experiencing SAD include omega 3 oils, zinc, magnesium and B vitamins. Deficiencies in any of these can contribute to the low mood and lethargy associated with the winter blues.
Carbohydrate and sugar cravings are often a symptom of SAD. However, although tucking into a chocolate muffin may have an initial positive impact on your mood, the reward is short-lived. Succumbing to sweet cravings too often can disrupt blood-sugar levels and actually worsen low-moods. Choosing foods containing healthy sources of proteins and fats such as nuts and seeds, legumes, eggs, tofu, fish and avocados will help you to balance your blood sugar levels and beat the carbohydrate cravings. Enjoy complex carbohydrates including whole grains, kumara, pumpkin and quinoa. These foods are nourishing and grounding and do not cause extreme blood-sugar fluctuations. There are plenty of deliciously healthy sweet treats out there to enjoy on occasion too – why not get creative in the kitchen, or visit your local health store to stock up on these should the cravings over-come you!
If you are experiencing SAD and feel that therapy and/or alternative treatments may be beneficial, then please be sure to contact us at The Holistic Medical Centre so that we can link you up with our wonderful psychologists, naturopaths and holistic GPs.