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Winter is Coming: Five Ways It Can Affect Your Mental Health

Contrary to what you might believe, SAD is not actually bought on by the weather that winter brings but by lack of exposure to natural light. And most importantly we shouldn't underestimate the significant effect it can have on the way we feel both physically and mentally. Here's why...

As the winter draws in and the days become shorter, darker and colder we can all admit that it makes us feel a little bit down and miserable. If you're a perceptive person, you will probably notice a difference in the moods of people around you. Fewer people can manage a smile when they are walking down the street with rain pelting down their face, and cold wind blowing down their necks. For most of us once we are inside a warm office or living room with a cup of tea we can brush off the weather outside and get on with our day, but for some it isn't that easy.

SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is a type of depression that occurs seasonally, usually every late autumn/winter. Symptoms include sleeping longer, having less energy, eating more and feeling little or no enthusiasm for every day activities, lack of concentration, irritability... basically a lot of the same symptoms as depression. Supposedly SAD affects 10% of the population, although I would argue that it affects most of us in varying degrees of severity.

But contrary to what you might believe, SAD is not actually bought on by the weather that winter brings but by lack of exposure to natural light. And most importantly we shouldn't underestimate the significant effect it can have on the way we feel both physically and mentally. Here's why...

1) It's time to hibernate!

Something that we seem to forget a lot as humans caught up in our modern world full of technology and shiny tall buildings, is that we are actually animals. Most mammals in cold seasons tend to hibernate, at the very least conserve their energy by only using it when necessary. We do the opposite and force ourselves into the cold every day, often leaving the house when its dark, and returning again IN THE DARK (groan).

There is evidence to suggest that humans that suffer from SAD go through a similar 'physiological slow down' that animals do leading up to winter, decreasing their body temperature and heart rate in preparation to hibernate.

So, if you are feeling this slow down as winter approaches then don't be too hard on yourself. It's natural that you have less energy at this time of year- the rest of the animal kingdom does too! Make sure that you get the sleep you need (most likely more than you need in the summer), stay warm and if you are lucky enough to have an opportunity to escape to warmer climes, if only for a few days then for goodness sake take it!

2) Light is our natural alarm clock

Changes in light are our body's way of knowing when it is time to wake up. Light is used to kick start our internal clock which sends the right signals to the parts of our brain which control hormones, body temperature and other functions that make us feel sleepy or awake. This is called our circadian rhythm. Unfortunately in the winter, many of us are waking up when it is still dark outside meaning that these signals have not been sent to our brain yet, hence the reason we wake up still feeling tired even if we've had enough sleep!

If you are privileged enough to wake up as it is starting to get light then leave your curtain slightly open, allowing the light to come through and wake you up naturally. If not then modern technology has created an alternative solution in the form of specialist sun lamps that produce UV and mimic sunlight to wake you up naturally. Unfortunately they are still pretty pricey so worth asking a friend/family member (or five) to chip in as a Christmas present!

3) We need vitamin D!

Vitamin D (the sunshine vitamin) is essential for calcium/phosphate levels/ immune function/regulating cell growth, all which in turn can affect mood and energy levels. The best way to absorb vitamin D is through direct sunlight on the skin. As we all know, this can be a rare thing to encounter in a British winter, especially if you spent all of your daylight hours inside an office.

If it's a sunny day then spend as much time outside as you can. Even if its cold, a brisk walk outside for half an hour on your lunch break is all you need to get your vitamin D fix. Luckily you can also get vitamin D from oily fish and eggs, so get cooking on your salmon and sardine omelettes!

4) Light regulates our hormone production

In the same way light sends signals to the hypothalamus telling our bodies when to wake up, it also tells it what hormones to produce depending on what time of the day it thinks it is. Not having light in the morning can lead to an overproduction of melatonin which makes us feel sleepy. It can also lead to a lack of serotonin production which affects our mood and our appetite.

So, once again, spend as much time outside as possible! Take your dog for a walk in the park, walk or cycle to the shops at the weekend, if its still light then try walking part of the way to work. It will make more of a difference than you realise.

5) Too much time under artificial lighting

If we you work in a workplace designed in the 1980s or anywhere underground, without natural light, it is probably quite likely you have to work under harsh, artificial lighting. When there is a lack of natural light coming through windows in the winter, the effects of fluorescent lighting can be felt even more. This can affect our mood and concentration, causing us to feel on edge, down and tired.

Many offices are now trying to phase out this type of lighting, recognising the impact that it can have on concentration and productivity. If it is affecting you then speak to your employer and see if you can arrange to have a warmer light as an alternative, and once again make sure you are getting outside at lunch time to expose yourself to natural light.

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