Few people would claim that winter is their favourite season. The days are short, there is less light and the weather is often miserable – shrouding fog, endless rain, beautiful but chilly snow, cruel frosts and ice. Few of us feel on top of the world especially when we are getting up in darkness and going home in darkness again after a long day’s work. It’s no wonder we often get more depressed and low in the winter months.
Don’t beat yourself up if you’re feeling low. It’s perfectly normal to be less upbeat in winter – winter is our natural time for ‘going within’, for becoming more meditative and focusing on our inner selves. See my book The Natural Year for more on this but, in a nutshell, try not to push yourself: take life a little easier; curl up on the sofa with a good book; hibernate a little.
However if winter really leaves you cold and miserable, you may need to look for some serious solutions. Dr Jacob Liberman, author of Light, Medicine of the Future (Bear & Company) says, ‘Unfortunately, winter, which was once a time of year when nature assisted our inner growth by supporting us in going into the unlit aspects of our souls, has now become a time of depression and sadness dreaded by many.’
He’s spot on. Aside from winter colds and coughs, the most common problem in winter is that gloomy sense of lethargy, depression and general malaise. It feels as if our metabolism is slowing and often we suffer aches and pains as well. Practitioners of Chinese medicine say there is a clear reason for this. Winter is considered to be governed by the element of water which rules the hormones, the lymphatic system and the essential enzymes. Symptoms of water imbalance can include fears and phobias, general states of anxiety and negativity, and above all a feeling of constant depression and pessimism.
However there may also be a more prosaic explanation. One of the things most people dislike about winter is the lack of sunlight. When the sun comes out spirits lift and energy levels bubble higher, even our health seems to improve – it’s as if someone had waved a miraculous magic wand. It may seem like magic but the effect is certainly not merely in our minds. Research clearly shows that pure clear sunlight can have measurable, highly beneficial, effects on our health, both physiological and psychological.
‘We spend more and more of our time indoors,” says Dr Damien Downing, author of Day Light Robbery (Arrow) and a leading exponent of the healing power of light. ‘The only time we see the sun is when we follow outdoor pursuits such as sport or gardening or go on holiday.’
It’s a change that has come about over the last couple of hundred years with the shift from working on the land to working in factories and offices. An office may be warmer and drier and more comfortable than the common British field but it is certainly darker. Dr Downing points out that our offices are lit at between two hundred and one thousand lux (the measurement for light) when, in reality, we need levels around ten times brighter. ‘We keep ourselves for most of our lives in perpetual twilight,’ he says. ‘Nowadays we live, without realising it, in self-imposed dungeons.’ The problem is exacerbated in winter. As Dr Liberman says: ‘People are actually suffering from sunlight starvation. It causes them to eat more, sleep more, become less interested in sex, become withdrawn and in general undergo a change in personality. It’s as though they are in a state of seasonal hibernation, or temporarily living in a cocoon.’
The most common result is the well-documented syndrome of SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder (that affects about two percent of the population), but Dr Downing reckons this is the tip of the iceberg and that around 60 percent of us suffer in a less dramatic way. Lack of light can cause depression and lethargy, disturbed sleep patterns and plummeting energy levels. Our metabolism can suffer, so can our hormone levels. Even conditions like osteoporosis and asthma worsen without regular doses of light. Ireland is situated in the higher latitudes of the northern hemisphere and, as a result, we experience large changes in light levels between the winter and the summer. Our often dark and gloomy winter weather doesn’t help either – reducing the amount of light we receive.
Light has a direct effect on the both our physical body and our moods. It stimulates the pineal gland in the brain to produce serotonin (the feel good hormone) and balances the amount of melatonin (our “hibernating” hormone). While melatonin controls our sleep patterns, an excess can lead to depression and tiredness. Without sufficient light these hormones can easily fall out of balance.
Short of turning back to the land or moving nearer the equator, how can we boost our light levels? The answer seems to be that, if we can’t go out into the light, then we have to bring the light in to us. Light boxes reproduce as closely as possible pure spring light. ‘Taking a “light bath” two hours in the morning does wonders for sufferers of seasonal affective disorder and others complaining of the winter doldrums,’ says clinical psychologist Dr Kristina Downing-Orr, author of What to Do if You’re Burned out and Blue (Thorsons).
However there are other strategies for coping with the winter blues.
FIVE BRIGHT IDEAS TO LIGHTEN UP WINTER
• Get as much natural daylight as you can. Brisk digging in the garden, dog-walking or even just walking outside in your lunch hour can help.
• Exercise is a key way to help prevent depression and winter lethargy. It will also keep your metabolism in tip-top form. But motivation can be tough in winter so adjust your exercise and workout regime to make it more palatable in the cold weather. Team or pairs sports can be fun – why not learn something new? This is also an excellent time of the year to work with weights, building strength and stamina. Will you bulk up? No. Not unless you’re a guy or are taking steroids.
• Good nutrition is vital in winter. Natural health experts recommend boosting your diet with almonds, apricots, bananas, broccoli, spinach, brown rice, sesame and sunflower seeds, wholewheat bread and pasta, potatoes, fish, poultry, lean meat and ‘good’ fats (avocado, EFAs, oily fish etc). Cut down on refined carbohydrates and cut out sugar, cakes, caffeine, alcohol and ‘fake’ fats (margarine etc.).
• Aromatherapists use certain oils for winter malaise. The citrus oils are very uplifting – lemon, orange, grapefruit, mandarin. Tazeka Aromatherapy does an amazing blend called Optimism – perfect for dark days. Available from their website or from MyShowcase in the UK.
• Boost your body in the winter months with a good quality multivitamin and mineral. I’m trialing a multi-mineral called Osean at the moment.