Beating the winter blues

Dark nights and cold weather give most people a touch of the winter blues, particularly after the festive period comes to an end.

For some, however, the effects are much more serious and long-lasting. An estimated seven per cent of the UK population suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), particularly during the winter months. SAD is thought to be caused by a biochemical imbalance in the brain brought on by a lack of sunlight when days are shorter.

Brain chemistry

Research has shown that the brain’s chemistry is affected by the amount of light entering the eye, influencing chemicals which control the body’s daily rhythms and mood. Melatonin is a hormone that signals it is night time and causes drowsiness as the body is encouraged to sleep. On dark winter mornings and dull grey days, melatonin levels can stay too high. As a result, some find it difficult to get going, and may experience symptoms of SAD.

Another contributing factor is low serotonin levels, which are also a common feature in those with depression. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that responds to levels of light, so when it’s dark, grey and overcast outside, people can be left feeling low.

Symptoms

Symptoms can differ from person to person. Some find they eat and sleep slightly more and take a general dislike to the dark mornings and short days. These people are likely to be suffering from a milder form of the condition, commonly referred to as the winter blues.

SAD symptoms are more severe and can cause disruption and considerable amounts of distress to a person’s life. These can include depression, sleep problems, over-eating and anxiety which bring misery to sufferers, who often dread the winter.

Exercise and mood

But the outlook for those who suffer from the condition isn’t all gloomy. There are things they can do to help themselves.

Awareness of SAD is increasing and there are positive steps which can be taken to improve associated problems.

Professor Andy Lane, from the University’s School of Sport, Performing Arts and Leisure, is one of the country’s leading sport and exercise psychologists whose research includes the effects of exercise on mood changes. He believes physical activity, particularly outdoors, can be very beneficial for sufferers.

He was among those whose expertise was called on when light therapy specialist Lumie offered a recent online support network called Blue Monday.

Professor Lane took part in a live Q&A offering advice via an online SAD clinic, held throughout November and December. Many sufferers logged on to find about the benefits of exercise and whether they should try to embark on a regular routine.

He says: “A great deal of evidence shows that exercise is associated with enhanced emotions. People go into an exercise class in an unpleasant mood and report feeling more uplifted at the end.”

Keeping motivated

He accepts that many people find it much harder to motivate themselves during the winter and advises that they should not put pressure on themselves to follow a set routine.

“The key thing is to be flexible,” he says. “It’s important to make the most of the daylight hours you have and get out when you can. Any physical activity will have a positive effect but that is greatly enhanced when people exercise outdoors.”

Professor Lane says many people feel they  have to exercise vigorously to feel any benefits but that this is a common misconception. They may also get disheartened if they cannot stick to their schedule.

He believes that a small amount of activity can make a real difference to mood and wellbeing.

He says those who suffer from SAD may work in offices and spend the whole day in artificial light, which is unnatural.

“I would suggest to people that they consider some reflection and analysis of what time they do have and when they have a choice over what they do. If there is time in the day they should try to be flexible and if they can’t get out in the morning or evening, try to find some availability during their lunch hours and at weekends. If people can build just 20 minutes of activity into their day it will be beneficial - even if it’s just walking to get a newspaper.”

There’s no easy solution for SAD sufferers but exercise is something they can put in their toolkit to repair their negative moods. Professor Lane advises people to set themselves short-term goals, be opportunistic about the weather and try to find some form of exercise that they enjoy, come rain or shine.