Article by Anne Elliott
As well as snow, gales, floods and tepid winter temperatures (which encourage viruses and other nasties to proliferate) one of our biggest enemies but least acknowledged is the continuous and seemingly endless greyness. I have a friend in California with whom I regularly Skype. She seems to be sitting in continuous sunshine whereas my world seems to be constantly dreary. She seems to have a happy smiley countenance whereas I look endlessly gloomy and dour.
Behavioural responses to our winter existence include staying in more because its too cold to go out, however, when you are indoors, you don’t move so much. Another response is the body’s need for temperature homeostasis. In summer you can wear less and perspire more: in winter you are hard wired to eat to keep warm if your environment is chillier than your body requires. The easiest way of obtaining energy that can be used for insulation is to consume simple carbohydrates/sugars so don’t be surprised if you find this urge to each much more cake, bread or biscuits than you would do at other times of the year. It’s not an inevitable outcome. If you know its happening, you can manage it and choose more suitable options.
The one thing we have trouble managing is our physiological response to gloomy grey days. Around 20% of the population will suffer to some extent from SAD (seasonal affective disorder). The symptoms can include anything from a low mood to feeling very depressed, you may feel tired or apathetic, have trouble sleeping or find you are getting every bug going in a continuous stream. A small percentage of people will find it affects their life and normal functioning quite considerably. You will be diagnosed as a sufferer if you have the same symptoms for a few consecutive winters and perk up once the spring returns. Remember that feeling low is a side effect of many illnesses, so your doctor will be looking for a pattern.
Reduced levels of sunlight impact your sleep and mood
The main cause is thought to be the reduced levels of sunlight that effect the hypothalamus in your brain which controls many important processes including your production of melatonin and serotonin. These hormones affect your sleep and your mood.
Depending on the severity of your symptoms, you can, to a great extent, help improve the way you feel, but it does go against those natural urges.
Try and get out into what little daylight we have for as long as possible and while you are there you might as well do some exercise like a hearty walk. Exercise is known to have significant benefits for depression sufferers including strengthening your cardio-vascular, lymphatic, musculo-skeletal, digestive and immune systems. In fact it helps just about every part of you. Gives you energy, regulates your circadian rhythms and helps you cope with stress. It’s a win-win situation. You’ve just got to get started. That’s the hard bit, when every bone in your body is telling you to snuggle up under the duvet and don’t move.
If you have the more severe form of SAD your GP might suggest treatments that are the same as for depression, that is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and anti-depressant medication. Another aid can be light therapy in which the sufferer sits in front of a high Lux light bulb source. There are light boxes available on the market to buy. The Seasonal Affective Disorder Association can give you with a list of recommended manufacturers.
Before you embark on an intervention, may I urge you to do nothing more than go for a daily walk around the park with a friend and see if that goes some way to dispelling your winter blues. With any luck, it may be all that you need till the sun decides to return to our shores.