Scientists recently debunked the widespread conviction that lack of sunlight during long, dark winters can cause a genuine mental illness known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). A large scale study in the US found that levels of depressive symptoms do not change from season to season. Perhaps these scientists have not visited London, where winter runs into spring.
Before you dive under your duvet and refuse to emerge until summer, take heart in the statistics. According to the NHS, SAD affects one in 15 people in the UK from September through to April. In other words, you are not alone.
Symptoms include lack of energy, low concentration levels, sleep problems, a sense of apathy or simply feeling sad, tearful, guilty or low. A hectic lifestyle, in which we are chained to our desks for most daylight hours, can only make matters worse.
Adam Rogers, a coach at Third Space, says the number one priority for people suffering from the winter blues is to “get outside”.
He adds: “We live in a society where we spend far too much time under halogen lights. Just five minutes outside in natural sunlight during your lunch break can make a difference”.
The human body, like many mammals, is deeply affected by natural light, explains Rogers. Lack of it can disrupt our body clocks and affect sleep, appetite, sex drive and especially the desire to exercise.
Sun exposure also impacts serotonin levels, which regulates moods, and the production of Vitamin D – essential for healthy bones and teeth.
When it is dark, the pineal gland in the brain produces melatonin, which helps us sleep. It is thought that people with SAD produce more melatonin than most during the winter. This also happens to animals when they hibernate.
As well as spending time outside, Rogers suggests using a so-called dawn simulator. These are alarm clocks that wake you up gradually with increasing light. A must for people who get up in the dark in order to train or work.
Another tip is to eat seasonal foods. “Our bodies are designed to eat foods that are in season, not whatever is readily available and cheap. Pick foods that are nutrient rich and fresh.” Good fats found in the likes of nuts and avocados can also help control hormones such as melatonin and seratonin.
Rogers also questions why so many of us book holidays abroad during the warmer months. “Rather than leaving the UK when it’s at its best, think about the benefits of some winter sun and have your annual holiday during the tough months of December, January, February or March.”
Not that we needed one, but that sounds like a perfect excuse to jet off to warmer climes.