Smart ways to pre-empt those winter blues

Posted on: 05 November 2014 by 50connect editorial

Does your mood get lower as the days get shorter? Take a look at these expert ways to beat the winter blues...

winter blues - seasonal affected disorder

New research, conducted by vitamin brand Healthspan, has shown that women spend 10 days a year in a mood, with one of the key triggers being bad weather, especially the cold dark days of winter. The jury’s still out on what causes seasonal mood disorders, such as SAD (seasonal affective disorder), but it’s thought to be linked to lack of sunlight - it’s rarely found in countries close to the Equator that have sunshine all year round. One theory suggests this affects a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which plays a role in regulating mood, appetite and sleep. As a result, production of vital hormones, including mood-boosting serotonin, slows down. Luckily, there is much you can do to help yourself. Here are the seven best ways to give your mood a boost this winter:

1 Try light therapy

Light therapy, exposure to special bright lights (up to 10,000 lux - the average light bulb is 200 lux), has been shown to be effective in 85 per cent of cases of the seasonal mood disorder, SAD. Light boxes come in varying sizes and you can carry on normal activities like reading in front of the light. Or try a daylight simulator alarm clock, like Lumie Zest (£125 from, which mimics a natural dawn, waking you up with a gradually increasing light, and optional birdsong. The theory is that waking up this way your body naturally stops production of the sleepy hormone, melatonin, so you wake up with energy. It also gives you a blast of bright light that can kick-start your body clock.

2 Avoid the sugar trap

A common symptom of low mood in winter is craving starchy and sweet foods. Sugary foods and refined carbohydrates give you an instant energy boost, but the rapid spike in your blood sugar triggers a flood of insulin into the bloodstream, follow by a blood sugar slump, leaving you feeling even more tired. Keeping your blood sugar levels steady can help you beat cravings, and boost your mood by staving off the energy dips that have you reaching for the biscuit tin. Good snack choices include humous and oatcakes, a small handful of unsalted nuts, or chunks of apple spread with crunchy peanut butter. Try basing your meals around complex carbohydrates such as wholegrains, pulses and low GI (glycaeminc index) starches such as sweet potatoes and butternut squash, along with protein and healthy fats, to stabilise your blood sugar levels.

3 Stay connected

‘Tempting as it may be to hibernate in winter, keeping up your social life and staying in regular contact with friends is important for mood management,’ says psychotherapist Sally Brown. Sharing your thoughts and feelings with others can really help to lighten the load. ‘If you’re isolated, negative thoughts can escalate and they can begin to feel like facts rather than thoughts. Getting out and socialising even if you really don’t feel like it can help break a negative thinking cycle and shake off low mood,’ she says.

4 Step away from the sofa

Regular, moderate exercise is a proven mood-booster as it boosts levels of endorphins - the body’s own feel good hormones. Aerobic-style exercise, like walking, cycling or dancing, is as effective as lightbox therapy in treating SAD, according to one study, and as a bonus, it helps stave off winter weight gain. Wrap up warm and get outdoors – studies have shown that exercising in green spaces boosts mood more than exercise indoors, and in a recent UK survey, seven out of ten people said getting out for a country walk in autumn helped stave off the winter blues.

5 Eat yourself happy

The mood we’re in can have a big influence on what you choose to eat. But experts are now exploring the other side of the equation – how the food you eat affects your mood and emotions. ‘Eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as oily fish have been shown to help with mood especially in the case of depression,’ says Robert Hobson, Head of Nutrition at Healthspan. ‘Deficiencies in folate, Vitamin B12 and magnesium have also been linked to low mood so try boosting your intake with wholegrains, pulses, eggs, dried apricots, green veggies, nuts and seeds.’

6 Try the ‘sunshine’ vitamin

Most of our vitamin D intake comes from sun exposure during the months from April to October, but if it’s been a rainy summer, or you spent most of it working indoors, you may not have stored up enough to last all winter. ‘The research from Healthspan revealed that 30 per cent of those surveyed said the weather affected their mood,’ explains Dr Hilary Jones, ‘so coming into the shorter days it can be just simply a matter of boosting vitamin D levels.’ Scientists have discovered vitamin D receptors widely distributed throughout the brain, which suggests that it could have an impact on our wellbeing and may affect the production of mood-boosting neurotransmitters.

7 Plan some treats

Prescribing yourself regular winter-themed treats (like a hot stone massage or an outdoor ice-skating session) can help stave off low mood as the days get shorter, suggests Sally Brown. ‘Sometimes we just need to give winter a mental ‘rebrand’. Try focussing on the positive side of the season (such as cosy Sunday afternoons in front of the fire, Christmas parties to look forward to and more flattering clothes in the shops) and mentally saying ‘stop’ to negative thought patterns such as ‘I hate this weather’ or ‘I’ve got no energy’.’ Similar techniques are used in CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) which research has shown helps 80 per cent of SAD sufferers feel better.

Does your mood get lower as the days get shorter? Take a look at these expert ways to beat the winter blues...

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