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The winter blues

Winter blues, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), seasonal depression? Check out our tips on how to survive winter by being active, sleeping, eating healthily and practising ‘hygge’.

Sunlight enters our brain through our eyes’ retina. It is this light which stimulates the production of melatonin and serotonin, which influence our biological rhythm. Consequently – within the brain – sunlight determines our sleep cycles, appetite and mood. So what happens when the days get shorter and light levels drop?

The result is a disruption in the body’s hormone production, with two effects. Firstly, a lack of light increases the production of melatonin, which makes us feel sleepy. Secondly, there is a reduction in the activity of serotonin (also known as the ‘happy hormone’), a neurotransmitter that regulates our sleep and mood. As its name indicates, SAD usually occurs in the winter-time and it has a greater impact on people in northern countries.

Unlike ‘traditional’ depression which often gives rise to negative thoughts, SAD tends to slow down the body’s activity. This results in symptoms such as fatigue, reduced energy levels, excessive sleep, lethargy, a lack of motivation and a greater appetite for carbohydrates. It’s worth highlighting that these symptoms are not due to any psychological weakness, as they stem from a chemical disruption of the brain.

Keeping the winter blues at bay

To fight off the winter blues, get active, go outside and grab some fresh air. Don’t neglect to get plenty of sleep. In winter, our bodies need extra sleep. Avoid eating food that contains more carbohydrates in the belief that you must boost your energy level. Doing so, will likely only result in more mood swings. Eat as much as you want or need, but eat healthily.

Practise hygge! Born in Scandinavia, this concept is a way of life designed to instil well-being and a feel-good factor, around a warm and friendly atmosphere. Hygge is a non-materialistic approach to happiness. It’s about enjoying to the full life’s small and daily pleasures, like cooking and eating a simple dinner with friends or family, drinking hot chocolate next to a crackling fire, lighting candles, etc.

Facts and figures

On a sunny summer’s day, we enjoy natural light levels of 50,000 to 100,000 lux, compared with 2,000 to 10,000 lux on a sunny winter’s day. Inside a house, the light typically falls to 100 to 500 lux, and in a well-lit office it can be 400 to 1,000 lux.

SAD was a disorder revealed by American psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal in the 1980s. He developed a seasonality questionnaire to diagnose the condition. The patient gives a score from 0 (no change) to 4 (extreme change) for changes in these six factors: sleep length, social activity, mood, weight, appetite, and energy level. A score higher than 10 may indicate someone has seasonal depression.