Neuroscientist Reveals How Your Brain Changes In Winter – And It Explains A Lot

Your mood and ability to complete tasks shifts in winter, but you can counteract the elements.
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You’re reading Winter Well, our seasonal guide to taking care of your body, mind and spirits during the winter months.

When winter arrives, your brain is likely to go through some changes – and some of them might leave you feeling pretty crummy. As our environments alter, new stressors arise that our brains have to react to, such as less sunlight or harsh weather, explains neuroscientist Dr Jenny Barnett.

Sometimes, these reactions can manifest as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, a common condition where the change of seasons (most notably from warm and bright to cold and dark) impact the mood.

“With a drop in levels of natural sunlight and our general routines turned upside down, our bodies end up producing less of a mood-regulating hormone called serotonin,” explains Dr Barnett, who’s chief scientific officer at Five Lives.

“When serotonin levels are low, our brain metabolises what it does have faster, which leads to an imbalance of chemicals within the brain that can make it hard to regulate our emotions.

“This leads to higher levels of anxiety and feelings of depression, which can drastically affect those with brain or mood-related conditions.”

Not only can these brain changes impact your mood, they can also influence your ability to complete tricky tasks, says Dr Barnett.

“Your brain tackles tasks differently,” she says. “In one study where volunteers were kept in an environment with no indication of the season for 4.5 days, scientists found that performance in cognitive challenges varied by each season, even though every aspect of the environment and the participants’ behaviour was kept the same.

“The study showed people performed better on cognitive tasks in the summer and worse in winter, with greater brain activation in the midsummer, and less in midwinter.

“This suggests our brains either have different resources available during the different seasons, or it has to utilise different methods to complete the same task in the different seasons.”

How to counteract these seasonal brain changes

Your brain needs adequate nutrition to function, so Dr Barnett recommends topping up your levels of vitamin D, B12 and folate during winter months.

“Vitamin B12 can be found in foods such as meat, fish, cheese and eggs, so for those following a vegan diet, speak to your GP about a supplement. For folate, fill your plate with green leafy vegetables, broccoli, beans and pulses, and avocados,” she explains.

Government advice is that everyone should consider taking a daily vitamin D supplement during the autumn and winter.

Dr Barnett adds that sticking to a good sleep routine and keeping active will also help. You might also want to consider light therapy, where a light box is used first thing in the morning to simulate sunlight.

If you think you’re experiencing seasonal affective disorder, you can speak to your GP for support.

Winter calls for us to take greater care of ourselves and each other at this time of year, from our health and homes to our headspace and matters of the heart. Whether you’re seeking motivation or hibernation, HuffPost UK’s Winter Well series is here to help you through the short days and the longer months.

Lynn Scurfield for Huffpost

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