Boost your serotonin to beat the winter blues
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) was first described and named by Norman Rosenthal MD of the National Institute of Mental Health USA in the early 1980s. Rosenthal was motivated by his own experience of winter depression, which he theorised was due to the lack of light in the winter months. His study using light therapy proved this to be a factor and, although his findings were initially treated with scepticism, the SAD phenomenon is now an accepted disorder.
SAD is nothing new, though, as people in northern countries have long known the effects of the ‘winter blues’. The NHS estimates 1 in 15 people (about 6.5% of the population) suffer from SAD during the months between September and April. It is recognised as a form of depression, with symptoms that can include low mood; loss of interest in life; feelings of despair and irritability; lethargy and sleeping more; craving carbohydrates and weight gain.
While many people may recognise some of these symptoms at times, for others SAD can seriously affect their lives during winter. One of the main causes of SAD is thought to be a reduction in serotonin production caused by less sunlight.
Serotonin is a hormone responsible for switching body responses on and off. Serotonin is one of the good guys, a feel-good chemical that enhances feelings of pleasure and well-being, helps cells to communicate with each other throughout the body, and aids sleep and digestion. In fact, 90% of serotonin is produced in the gut and distributed from there through the body.
When your serotonin level is low it can lead to depression, anxiety and increased stress. This can also affect sleep and digestion, leading to an overall state of low mood and reduced vagus nerve function. The vagus nerve is one of the main communicators of the nervous system linking your gut, breathing, heart and brain. There is therefore a strong connection between low serotonin, poor vagal function and SAD symptoms.
Medical treatment for SAD can include antidepressants, but there is more emphasis on positive lifestyle changes to help you through the winter months. Some simple suggestions include:
Spending more time in nature can help boost serotonin production and stimulate your vagus nerve. It doesn’t have to be a sunny day, as even a short regular walk in natural light helps to stimulate your body and relax your mind. If you really can’t get outside, maybe consider getting a light box which simulates natural daylight.
Especially as Christmas approaches, it’s very easy to turn to comfort foods when you’re feeling low. Too much processed sugar is not good for your body as it can cause inflammation, offers little nutritional value, and contributes to weight gain. However, don’t feel obliged to make radical changes to your diet, as the common-sense approach is to eat a balanced diet, which can still include treats. Good food nourishes both your brain and body.
Take a vitamin D supplement
Multiple studies have connected vitamin D deficiencies with mental health conditions. Our bodies produce vitamin D when exposed to sunlight, so taking a supplement in winter months can help to facilitate serotonin production. Maybe talk to your GP about whether a vitamin D supplement would be worth considering.
Get enough sleep
SAD can contribute to poor sleep patterns where you sleep late, or nap during the day. This can change your sleep patterns and make it more difficult for your body to get the deep restorative sleep it needs to repair and restore cells. Adopting good sleep hygiene, with a regular pattern of when you go to bed and get up, can help your body use and make serotonin.
The current pandemic is making it more difficult for people to have physical contact with others. However it’s a good time to remember that hands-on therapies such as massage and myofascial release are now permitted in all Tiers and even in lockdown if they are for essential treatment. This doesn’t just encompass pain conditions, but also mental states including stress, anxiety and depression. Even if you can’t get to a therapist in person, there are many options to arrange appointments online. The power of therapeutic touch and support in helping to make a positive difference should never be underestimated.
This winter more than ever, it is important for all of us to pay attention to both our physical and mental health. Whether you are feeling the effects of chronic pain or of SAD, be kind to yourself and take care to look after yourself. Follow these links to find out more about hands-on myofascial release appointments at our clinics, and our online appointment support.