The sun is setting earlier each day as we dive into the latter quarter of 2019, towards the winter solstice. Living in northern Europe, many people here are familiar with “winter depression”. Any normal sadness can be exaggerated by endless grey days. This is especially a concern for students who may already be stressed due to their study. This is the season when people easily catch colds and you see more pallid faces.
But luckily it doesn’t have to be like this! In this article we will look at some subtle but important tips that might help fight off low moods and improve general health, so that these months can be happily lived in and enjoyed. These may be suggestions you already know and are familiar with, but it’s helpful to be reminded at this time of year!
Have you ever spent the day outside when it was hot and sunny, and when you returned home, you felt warm, glowing and contented? Almost like you were full of sunlight? There’s a biological reason that this feels so good to us. (as long as you didn’t burn…)
Currently, we are in the darkest part of the year. It’s no longer the time to sunbathe in the park. This is a huge problem, because our bodies only synthesize vitamin D effectively from sunlight exposure. There is no significant dietary source of vitamin D besides in some seafood. So, unless you are eating fish daily in the winter, it is still a good idea to supplement.
Vitamin D is essential for bone health, as well as for your immune system. Have you ever had a nasty cold or flu in winter? If so, you probably could have used some of this vitamin. It has also been seen in studies that vitamin D may play a part in preventing depression and other mood disorders, as those who deal with depressive symptoms also have a lower blood level of vitamin D.
The majority of people are deficient in this vitamin, especially in this part of the year. If you find yourself in a low mood, or want to prevent falling into one, consider taking a vitamin D supplement. Though often forgotten by most of us, I’ve personally found it can make a significant difference.
As we all know, humans are deeply social creatures. It’s true that we need proper socialization and affection as children in order to properly develop. But it is still important in all periods of our lives. This concept may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how often it is underrated or dismissed.
We release a specific hormone, oxytocin, in response to touch and positive social interactions. Oxytocin acts like a natural ani-depressent and facilitates social bonding.
Even if you feel you are a less social person, you should know it is still helpful for you to put yourself around other people regularly. Especially if you don’t enjoy large groups, make sure that you keep and curate a close circle of friends who feel helpful and safe to you, and with whom you are mutually beneficial. When friends invest positive attention into each other, they also invest into themselves and their own health.
Benefits of nature
We don’t always notice it, but keeping yourself only indoors or in the city can cause an underlying level of stress and anxiety. Some parts of our modern lives are historically and biologically highly unnatural in the grand scheme of humanity, and our bodies sometimes have trouble coping with that.
In one study, a forest retreat was found to help support recovery after cancer treatments. If simply being in a forest helped with recovery from a majorly traumatic disease, imagine how it could benefit a relatively healthy person as well. A recent study suggests just 120 minutes a week spent in nature is enough to boost wellbeing and health.
Listen: when the temperature is freezing and it’s raining, or hailing and thundering, I understand there’s no urge to go wandering around the Stadspark or the countryside. (I don’t want to either.) So instead, find a compromise. Consider getting some houseplants to brighten up your desk or room. Maybe a fish tank. Or simply buy a bouquet of flowers from the market once in a while. You’d be surprised just how much that can help. And when the weather’s better, get fresh air.
Necessity of sleep & circadian rhythm
Sleep is truly vital for optimal human function. Even losing one hour of sleep can throw your body off for an entire day. People with disrupted sleep are more susceptible to chronic diseases, including depression.
Sleep is important for immune function.
If you are regularly doing sports, sleep is even more important: this is the time in which your body recovers, and it’s during sleep that we have the highest levels of HGH. (human growth hormone)
Of course, it’s not always possible to get a full night of rest, especially if you go out for an evening. But consider giving yourself a break from this once in a while and recharging.
Our bodies have a natural schedule called the circadian rhythm, based on exposure to certain light. Ensuring this rhythm is as natural as possible helps improve sleep quality, as well as ease in falling asleep. Not only the length of sleep is important, but also the quality.
Luckily there are some simple ways to regulate this. At night, try to minimize your exposure to artificial blue light. This is because blue light has the same wavelength as daylight, which tells your body to release cortisol and wake up. Consider using an app or filter on your phone/laptop to remove blue light. You can also use a sleeping mask at night, to ensure there is no disturbing light. If the street outside your house is loud, earplugs can also help you avoid disturbances.
Equally important is to expose yourself to a source of light when you wake up. Ideally this means getting some morning sun rays, but in cloudy weather with a late sunrise, a bright indoor light may have to suffice instead. This also helps your body to maintain an attuned internal clock.
Several of the tips above are aimed specifically at lessening your base level of stress and/or helping your body to better deal with stress. Stress is necessary as a driving force, but most of us are experiencing it too much. This can lead to many long term health issues. Maybe you have noticed this: if you are stressed or sad, you are also more prone to catching illnesses.
So, if you know something in your life is causing you a lot of stress, view it as detrimental to your health and seek to minimize its impact on you, or otherwise to resolve it. Of course this is not always possible if the source of stress is from working, getting a good grade, writing an essay or pulling an all-nighter for an exam.
However, it is still possible to take care of yourself when you are not busy. If you know you will be stressed out, try to plan a day into your schedule where you focus on relaxing or being with friends, or doing anything that helps you to find feelings of calmness and security. You know best what that looks like for you. Maybe it’s trying meditation, maybe it’s treating yourself to your favorite food, or maybe it’s going to a movie with friends. In short: make sure to enjoy your life and take care of yourself.
Your body and mind are an interlinked, intelligent machine that is easily influenced and manipulated by many environmental factors. Some of these factors are in your control. Treat your system right and you will find significant benefits. Remember that this season!
Disclaimer: This is not advice from a medical professional, just advice from a university student who has personally implemented and found these tips to be helpful. If you are experiencing serious health issues, mental or physical, it’s always best to see a doctor. These tips are more useful as preventative tools than as certain cures.