Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, says: “The symptoms of SAD (seasonal affective disorder) are similar to those of depression – low mood, sleep difficulties, feelings of hopelessness, no longer enjoying things we used to enjoy etc. However, with SAD, they’re cyclical, usually beginning in autumn and winter and then improving again in the spring and summer.”
There are lots of great things about winter. Log fires, frosty walks, cosy jumpers, mulled wine and of course, Christmas. So far, so cheery. But it’s also a very difficult time of year for many, as dwindling daylight takes its toll on our mood. And this year of all years, after months of lockdowns and social distancing from our loved ones, we may be more likely than ever to feel blue due to the dark and cold.
But while feelings of tiredness and sadness can be pretty common human reactions to the winter months, it’s important to remember there’s a difference between the ‘winter blues’ and more serious mental illnesses such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or depression. So if you’re feeling low, at any time of year, you should always get professional medical advice.
Getting a boost of the naturally occurring hormone serotonin is one thing you can do to help keep your mental health in good shape during the winter months. “Serotonin is important for good mental health as it helps to stabilise our mood and promote feelings of wellbeing,” explains Dr Tourani.
Here are a few simple ways to top up your serotonin levels naturally at this time of year.
What is serotonin and why is it important?
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, known as one of the body’s feel-good hormones. “It helps with all sorts of bodily functions,” explains nutritional therapist Jen Walpole. “Since serotonin is involved in a wide variety of functions such as eating, sleep, circadian rhythm and hormone production, it’s hugely important to support its production to optimise our overall health and wellbeing. Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression.”
Get some daylight, every day
Yes, daylight hours are short at this time of year, but exposure to natural light in the middle of the day is vital for that serotonin boost. Jen says: “Studies support the use of bright light to increase serotonin levels. I encourage all clients to get outside, even on the coldest winter days to gain exposure to natural light.“
“In an ideal world, we want to be getting as much daylight exposure during the working day as possible,” adds Dr Touroni. “Light has been linked to relieving problematic physiological symptoms like headaches, tension, sleep difficulties etc. And lack of light has also been linked to low mood. With many of us now working from home and cutting out our daily commute, we’re likely to be getting even less light than before. That’s why it’s so important we prioritise getting out and about, even if it’s just for a half an hour walk in the local park during our lunch break.“
Check your diet
As with so many aspects of our health, part of the answer lies on our plate. “The essential amino acid L-tryptophan is needed to produce serotonin,” explains Jen. “It is known as ‘essential’ as it must be obtained exclusively through the diet. Sources include poultry, meat, fish, dairy, tofu and edamame, pumpkin seeds and oats.”
Break a sweat
Exercise helps to release the amino acid tryptophan into your bloodstream, which, as we’ve learned, is needed to produce serotonin. It also promotes those other well-known feel-good hormones, endorphins. “Regular exercise releases feel-good hormones, endorphins and serotonin, which can help provide a natural mood boost,” says Dr Tourani. It doesn’t have to be hitting the gym hard either, just anything that gets your heartbeat up on a regular basis, such as brisk walking, jogging, dancing, cycling or swimming.
Look after your gut health
Gut health is huge news in wellness right now, for good reason. “Since the majority of serotonin is found in the gut, good gut health is imperative to support the function of the neurotransmitter serotonin,” explains Jen. “For example, for clients that present with symptoms of low mood, I would assess their gut health and work on restoring a balanced microbiota through the use of pre and probiotic foods such as oats, banana, garlic, onions, kimchi, sauerkraut and kefir. In addition, gut health is supported by consuming an array of colourful vegetables and fruits (ideally organic and seasonal), some healthy fats, specifically omega-3 (oily fish and algae oil are the best sources) and complete protein (eggs, poultry, fish, dairy, soy).”