When you feel good on the inside you look good on the outside, conversely, if the cold, dark months take their toll on your mood it's going to be written all over your face. Dietitian and well-being consultant Laura Tilt explains how to fight back.
If you find yourself feeling less than chipper during the cold months rest assured you’re in good company – according to research by YouGov, one in three of us suffer from ‘winter blues’, a type of seasonal low mood triggered by shorter, darker days.
Short of moving to the Med, there are some scientifically proven habits that can help. Here’s what you need to know.
WAKE/WORK WITH BRIGHT LIGHT
One of the reasons we feel blue in the winter months is a lack of daylight. This is also what makes it so hard to get up in the mornings – light turns off the production of melatonin – the sleep hormone. Without natural light, there’s nothing to signal to our bodies that it’s time to wake up. One option is to use a dawn simulator, a type of alarm clock that wakes you up gradually with natural light. Alternatively, you can use a lightbox when you’re working – this mimics bright daylight at the strength of around 2,000 lux –four times brighter than a well-lit office.
WALK IT OUT
Exercise is a great mood booster, with studies showing it can be as effective as anti-depressants if you stick with it regularly. In one study, walking fast for 35 minutes, five days a week improved symptoms of mild to moderate depression. Getting outdoors at midday also has the added benefit of exposing you to bright light – a great antidote to the office environment.
DOSE WITH WITH VITAMIN D
Responsible for strengthening our bones, the sunshine vitamin also plays a role in keeping the mood on an even keel. During summer your body manufactures vitamin D in response to sunlight hitting your skin, but from October to April, the sun’s rays aren’t strong enough for us to make any. This means a supplement is needed to keep levels in the healthy range – according to the latest advice from the NHS, a daily dose of 10 micrograms is enough to do the trick.
FILL UP ON OILY FISH
The natural oils found in fatty fish like herring, mackerel and salmon have been shown to play a protective role against low mood, with studies showing populations that eat lots of seafood have a lower risk of depression. Aim for 2 portions of oily fish a week, or consider a supplement if you’re not a fish eater – around 500 milligrams of omega 3 a day is recommended.
Mindfulness meditation – the practice of bringing your attention to the present moment - has become a health buzzword, thanks to some promising results. Studies show it can help to reduce stress and anxiety and improve the ability to cope with challenging situations. Just 5-10 minutes a day is enough to make a difference. For a guided start to practice, check out headspace.com.
PLAN SOMETHING FUN
It’s tempting to go into hibernation mode during the winter months, but according to researchers from the University of Vermont, resisting social isolation is key to boosting your feel-good factor, as social connection plays a huge role in keeping us happy. At the start of each week, schedule a date with friends - it doesn't have to be a big investment of time or money, meeting up with a friend for a coffee is enough. Researchers have shown that just by planning a vacation, your mood is lifted.
KEEP A GRATITUDE DIARY
Before your head hits the pillow, write down three good things that happened that day– this simple habit can shift your mindset from the negative to the positive, triggering the release of happy hormones. Over time, studies show that keeping a gratitude diary can help improve optimism and a sense of happiness. There are apps and books that can help you keep track, but even making a list on your smartphone or a post-it will work.
Laura Tilt MSc, RD, is an experienced dietitian and health writer who believes in the power of food to improve health.
She’s seriously passionate about helping people understand the science between the food they eat, and their physical and mental well being.