Beating the winter blues

19 November 2021

Beating the winter blues

Dr Sophie Bostock, a sleep evangelist, discusses five strategies to beat the winter blues and get your mood and energy back on track.

Video transcript

Hi, my name is Dr. Sophie Bostock, and I'm a sleep evangelist. That means I spend most of my year trying to help people to get more of something they enjoy, that makes them feel good, healthier and more productive and best of all, it's absolutely free.

But there is a hitch.

There is such a thing as too much sleep.

Scientists recommend that most adults need between seven and nine hours sleep to function at their best and this comes from a number of studies which have looked in the long term and shown that both shorter and longer sleepers are increased risk of developing conditions, like heart disease and diabetes.

But the seven to nine hours is an average. There are some people who can thrive on as little as six hours sleep and some who need a little bit more than nine.

If this is you don't worry about it. It's partly down to genetics.

The thing to watch out for is when there's a change in the amount of sleep that you need to feel at your best. At this time of year, as the days get shorter and its cold outside, at least one in five of us experience a triad of symptoms commonly known as the winter blues.

If this happens to you, you might notice a dip in your normal energy levels or increased sleepiness. You may notice that your mood starts to sag or you're more prone to mood swings.

And finally, you may also notice that you're always hungry, which can lead to weight gain.

Now slowing down occasionally is not necessarily a bad thing. But if this dip in energy leads to a difficulty fulfilling your family or work obligations, it's time to take action.

Before I get into the how, please keep in mind that if you're worried that you might be depressed or you're having difficulty coping, please speak to a doctor. For some people the winter depression can become so severe that they're diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD, which returns every year.

The good news is that no matter what the severity of the winter blues, there is plenty you can do to get your mood and energy back on track. And in this video, I will share five strategies with you.

Number 1

Wake up at the same time as often as you can.

The reason for this is that our wakefulness and sleepiness is controlled by an internal clock which ticks over every 24 hours, and this is called a circadian rhythm. And we have these internal clocks to control all sorts of bodily functions, including mood, blood pressure, digestion and so on.

When you stick to a regular wake-up routine, the body learns to recognise and anticipate what's going to happen. So, every morning, before you wake up, you get this little injection of cortisol, the hormone which helps to mobilise your energy levels and you wake up feeling more alert.

In the same way, before you go to bed, the body anticipates that its bedtime and it releases the hormone melatonin, which really helps you to have a restorative sleep.

When you have very haphazard routines or lack of routine, the body can't anticipate things in the same way and so it delays the onset of these hormones and it's not unusual to feel more sluggish in the morning and to struggle to sleep at night.

So simply by waking up at the same time each day you can improve your energy levels.

Now if you are a shift worker listening to this and you can't get up at the same time each day. Don't worry. There is still plenty that you can do to help your internal rhythms to act in sync.

Number 2

Get a good injection of bright light every morning.

Why is this important? Well light lands on receptors in the back of the eye and sends a message to a master clock in the brain that it's daytime and it's time to be alert.

The problem in the winter is that there is less natural light around and more of us rely on electric lighting which is actually thousands of times less intense than natural sunlight.

So, to increase your levels of alertness through the day the ideal thing is to get outside as often as possible and particularly first thing in the morning. You might also want to move your desk next to a window if you're working from home.

If you're suffering from SAD, you might need a little extra help and the first line of treatment is actually to use one of these. This is a SAD lamp and if I switch it on it's going to flood my eyes with this incredibly intense light. This gives me 10,000 Lux, which is the equivalent to what you'd get if you stepped outside on a barmy summer's day.

And this bright light used for about 30 minutes every morning can help to reset the clock and improve both mood and energy, especially in the morning.

So, if bright light really helps to improve your energy levels in the morning, what does that mean for before bed?

Well, it's logical that you then want to turn down the lights.

Number 3

An hour before bed, set an alarm on your phone to remind you to switch off as much as possible the overhead lights so that you're just relying on a dimmer switch or on table lamps.

And perhaps most importantly make sure that your bedroom is really dark either using blackout blinds, or if you don't have access to those then maybe using an eye mask.

The more light that surrounds you when you're trying to sleep the less likely it is that you'll get a good dose of Melatonin which helps you have that kind of restorative slumber.

You might also want to try a pair of these. These are blue light blocking glasses. And the idea of these is that they block the wavelengths of light which are particularly alerting, and a recent study found that wearing these for an hour before you went to bed for a week could actually improve people's perceived quality of sleep and their productivity during the day, so it might be worth a try.

Number 4

For this I need my favourite hat. This is to remind me that number four is about cultivating a winter loving mindset.

This idea comes from populations like those living in Tromso in northern Norway. Now if light was all that there was to it you would expect these guys to be super depressed. The only get a couple of hours of natural daylight during the winter and that is come with the sun low on the horizon.

Studies have found that actually if anything it's the opposite. The culture there is to embrace the winter rather than resist it and people really appreciate the soft light and the winter sports. And some of them say that winter is their favourite time of year.

So, there is no doubt that cultivating a more positive winter mindset might help. I would recommend investing in some nice warm clothes so you can get out and enjoy what daylight there is you might also want to keep a winter photo diary so that it's kind of encouraging you to appreciate the visual the lights of winter.

And the other thing is before you go to bed try and think about three things that you're grateful for that day, every day.

Gratitude is a great antidote to stress.

Number 5

My final technique, number five. I found this photo the other day. This was me at school with some of my friends and we just happen to have a zoom call the other day and it reminded me of the value of connection.

Everybody has their own ways of building personal connections, but I just want to remind you to make time for those. Research has found that those people who feel that they are contributing to their community or are well supported by social networks, are likely to have better sleep as well as a better quality of life.

Whether it's helping out a neighbour, asking a friend for help, sending a card or flowers to a friend or simply committing to spending a phone, free evening with your household, there are lots of ways to feel connected.

So, there we have it, five strategies to banish the winter blues.

Good luck and sleep well.