With less than 2 weeks until the darkest night of the year it can become quite common for many of us to suffer with low mood, frequent coughs/colds/infections and a melancholy at how wet, cold and miserable it can be. We might want to spend more time in bed, struggle to engage in social occasions and spend hours inside watching TV and/or eating sugary foods.
In more extreme cases the condition known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) will be experienced by 3 in every 100 people in the UK. This can be so debilitating that people struggle to leave the house, lose their sex drive, gain weight and switch off from friends and loved ones.
The causes to the winter blues are often attributed to physical responses due to the lack of sunlight in latitudes towards the north and south pole during the months of winter. The closer you get to the poles the shorter the days and the longer the nights. In Iceland they experience winter days that almost touch 24 hours for weeks on end. In the UK we are fortunate it is not that extreme but still it can be a commonly discussed pattern by many of us, even people that are not depressed might notice winter always feels harder than summer.
Research (Melrose, 2015) focuses in on some people experiencing neurotransmitter disruption, namely serotonin, and how in some studies it is lower in people with SAD. As well as also showing a natural fall in levels of Vitamin D, a hormone that is produced within us when our skin comes into contact with rays from the sun. In the UK our bodies cannot manufacture any vitamin D during winter so we are reliant upon food to supplement our levels. Vitamin D is also believed to be involved in the production of serotonin and a lack of it has been shown to be present in clinically significant depressive symptoms. People with SAD may also have an overproduction of a hormone produced in the brain known as melatonin. Melatonin is the hormone released at night, as part of your circadian rhythm to help you fall asleep. Yawning and feeling tired are often the signs of a melatonin influx. As long winter days increase, production of melatonin can be too much compared to the optimum level. Leaving people much more tired and sleepy.
In all people with SAD it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what the main cause will be and is probably more likely to be a combination of all the potential causes in some form or another.
So what can you do about SAD and/or the associated winter blues and infections?
Start with vitamin D3 supplements. My preferred product to use at home and with patients is a dropper containing 1000 IU’s per drop. This will usually be made from Sheep’s wool so it won’t be vegan. 2 to 3 drops per day between October and March will keep your levels high. It is interesting to note that most of our native ancestors in northern Europe did this at winter when they would consume fermented cod liver oil. An oil that tastes awful yet is absolutely packed with high amounts of vitamin A and vitamin D.
Look at consuming capsules or tincture of Hypericum perforatum (Saint John’s Wort). This is one of the most evidence based herbs that we have for treating depression. Some trials have shown it works better than pharmaceutical drugs for moderate depression (Williams et al 2000) . I take a couple of capsules a day throughout the winter months and find it helps keep my mood stable. It is also a great herb for stress and anxiety. Do NOT consume this herb if you are on any pharmaceutical medication. It WILL interact.
Start going to the sauna. This by far is massively underrated and underused by people who suffer at winter. Regular sauna has been shown (Hussain and Cohen, 2018) to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s and all causes of mortality. Not only will a sauna help detoxify heavy metals, pollution and chemicals in your body (which will no doubt be there) it will also raise your endorphins. Endorphins are your bodies ‘feel-good’ hormones that are pain-relieving, immune system enhancing and mood enhancing. Research shows keeping your bodies endorphin levels high is associated with a healthier immune system and mental health. For you to really feel the benefit you need to be going 3-5 times a week. I try to go every 2-3 days in winter and really notice a difference on the days I sauna.
Try as much as possible to keep up a healthy social routine. Getting out of the house and meeting your friends for food, drinks, parties, events etc. is very important as it will give you more structure with which to leave the house and face the cold so that you can have FUN and enjoy yourself. Again this is about keeping endorphins high and giving you resilience to face the harshness of the winter by having engagements that you need to get to. This was shown to be one of the reasons why the town of Tromso in Norway has very low levels of SAD (Leibowitz, 2015). Tromso sits in Northern Norway and doesn’t get any light for about 2 months of the year. However, the town is loved for its high number of winter festivals, long shopping hours, busy streets and a huge number of winter events that make winter the best time of the year for certain residents. The observations of researchers in Tromso stated that clearly socio-psychological factors (i.e. your mind) have much more of an impact on winter blues than we initially thought.
For coughs, colds and infections consider using Echinacea angustifolia and/or Echinacea purpurea alongside Inula helenium (Elecampane root) and Thymus vulgaris (Thyme). The Echinacea will help increase your white blood cells (Agnew et al 2005) and has been shown to be effective in reducing the severity of an infection. The Elecampane and Thyme both have constituents which are anti-bacterial and anti-viral and help the body fight back on any infectious state. Take as a tincture upon onset and for the duration of any infection.
The 4 methods stated above are the most cost-effective, high probability of working options I know of. I use them myself every winter and I rarely get sick. If i do get an infection, it will always be a fraction of what I remember my winter sicknesses were like before I made the above changes. Remember that routine is the key, simply trying a few of the things above once or twice will not do much. So give it at least a month of constant work around going to sauna, taking your herbs every day and making sure your week is filled with fun activities that get you active, engaged, warm and happy.
I regularly treat patients with winter blues and winter infections. Get in touch if you need more support or something stronger to help turn your mood around.
Agnew, L.L. Guffogg, S.P. Matthias, A. Lehmann, R.P. Bone, K.M. Watson, K. (2005) Echinacea intake induces an immune response through altered expression of leucocyte hsp70, increased white cell counts and improved erythrocyte antioxidant defences, Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics, Aug;30(4):363-9.
Hussain, J. Cohen, M. (2018) Clinical Effects of Regular Dry Sauna Bathing: A Systematic Review, Evidence Based Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 1857413.
Leibowitz, K. (2015) The Norwegian Town Where the Sun Doesn't Rise [Health] Online. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/07/the-norwegian-town-where-the-sun-doesnt-rise/396746/
Melrose, S. (2015) Seasonal Affective Disorder: An Overview of Assessment and Treatment Approaches, Depression Research and Treatment, vol. 2015, Article ID 178564, 6 pages.
Williams, J.W. Mulrow, C.D. Chiquette, E. Noel, P.H. Auilar, C. Cornell, J. (2000) A systematic review of newer pharmacotherapies for depression in adults: evidence report summary, Annals of Internal Medicine, May 2;132(9): p. 743-756.
Medical Herbalist and Flower Essence Therapist
BSc (Hons) Herbal Medicine
National Institute of Medical Herbalists
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