Whether you embrace a snow day or grumble as you trudge into work, the depths of winter can result in many of us feeling low, but it doesn't have to be that way, says Helen Foster. Here are her 10 tips for feeling chipper in the freezing weather:
1 Fidget. Winter blues are strongly linked with falling levels of the mood-boosting hormone serotonin that occur at this time of year. This is because enzymes that absorb serotonin become more active as days get shorter. Researchers at Princeton University in the United States have found that rhythmic movements such as jiggling your leg, tapping your finger or chewing gum increase the release of serotonin. ‘You can also raise your levels via diet,’ says Dr Caroline Longmore, author of The Serotonin Secret. She suggests adding a serotonin-boosting food at each meal – her top 10 are turkey, bean sprouts, asparagus, sunflower seeds, lobster, cottage cheese, pineapple, tofu, spinach and bananas.
2 Embrace comfort. If you spend the whole winter moaning about the cold, the dark and the wet, you’re guaranteed to feel down. ‘Focus on the joys of winter,’ says motivation coach Robert Ashton, author of The Life Plan: 700 Simple Ways To Change Your Life For The Better. He suggests making a list of things you can only do now, such as going skiing or watching snow fall, or things that are just better done in winter, such as spending the night curled up with a book or drinking hot chocolate with whipped cream, and aiming to do one of them every day.
3 Have fun ‘A lot of people stop doing things they love in winter, and this alone can trigger feelings of depression,’ says Dr Jeremy Slaughter, clinical psychologist at London’s The Third Space health and fitness club. He suggests visualising what would make your perfect winter and then thinking how you can make it happen. This will increase the chances of it actually happening – and ‘people who set goals for themselves are generally happier anyway than those with no direction’, says Slaughter.
4 Increase your PEA levels Found in high levels in blue-green algae, phenylethylamine (PEA) is a brain chemical that increases feelings of joy. ‘It does this by modulating positive neurotransmitters,’ says nutritionist Kirsten Brooks. ‘It will help you make more serotonin and inhibit its re-uptake, meaning what you do produce stays in your system longer.’ In a recent trial by Italian researchers*, women who were given algae supplements experienced up to 40 per cent lower depression symptoms within two months. Try Klamin algae extract supplements, £19.95 for 30 tablets from healthy.co.uk.
5 Listen to your body Are you feeling colder than normal or craving hot drinks and woolly jumpers? Then you might want to phone a friend or invite friends round. According to researchers at Canada’s University of Toronto, we feel colder or reach for warmer things when we’re feeling socially isolated or our mood is low.
6 Pump your ions Michael Terman at Columbia University Medical Center has found that exposing winter-blues sufferers to negative ions (airborne electrical charges) cuts depression symptoms by up to 48 per cent, possibly because negative ions raise serotonin levels. In winter, negative ion levels are low because central heating, fluorescent lights and stuffy rooms all produce high levels of positive ions instead. Simple ways to increase negative ions include opening windows or running water.
7 Find your winter scent 'Your sense of smell is directly connected to your moods and feelings, via your limbic system; choosing the right smells for your environment can help beat the winter blues and even ease symptoms like SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder),' says Jennie Harding, product technical advisor and essential oil specialist for Tisserand Aromatherapy. 'Summer smells like zesty orange, refreshing lemon or zingy lime help to lift your mood, or relaxing smells like lavender or chamomile can soothe mental stress, while spicy aromas like ginger and cardamom help you feel re-energised.'
8 Keep your house clean Winter conditions are highly conducive to mould – something Dr Edmond Shenassa at Brown Medical School in the United States has linked to poor mood. ‘Toxins in mould have been shown to slow down the part of the brain that deals with emotions that we could experience as depression,’ he says. If your home is mould-prone, wiping affected areas with a solution of bleach and water will help.
9 Boost your magnesium Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) has been linked to low melatonin levels. ‘If you’re not sleeping well, you’re going to naturally produce lower levels of melatonin,’ says nutritionist Kate Cook. ‘Magnesium helps promote deeper sleep, so raise levels in your diet with foods such as nuts, seeds and green leafy vegetables, or try using magnesium oil on your skin.’ Try Better You Magnesium Oil, £12.30.
10 Light up your life Light is a natural mood booster, and exposure is the established way to beat winter depression. ‘For many people simple measures, such as getting 15 minutes of morning sunlight or switching to daylight bulbs, will be enough to beat it,’ says Victoria Revell, at the University of Surrey. Those suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), however, may need more powerful therapy. Researchers from Canada’s Laval University have discovered that the retinas of SAD sufferers absorb less light than non-sufferers, meaning they don’t get the same boost from the same light levels. Light boxes that offer medical doses of light, such as the Lumie Arabica, £99.95, can help.