Exercise, Mental Health, nutrition

Top Tips for Keeping Well This Winter (especially during lockdowns)

My dear friends,

Welcome back to my blog. Earlier this week I posted an article explaining why it is that a lot of people tend to feel worse in winter. This year, a bit of a different winter presents itself to us. With lockdowns and the threat of COVID-19, restrictions have been put in place to keep the country safe, however, these restrictions keep most of us housebound and lacking in routine, outdoor time and social contact.

During the spring/summer lockdown earlier this year, the abundant amount of daylight and the warmth provided a motivation to spend time outdoors, whether that was visiting a park and socially distancing from friends, going for walks or runs, or just being able to keep a window open and let the fresh air and light in. Unfortunately, the short daylight hours and dropping of temperatures can mean that outdoor activities become significantly less enjoyable. I feel it is especially important for all of us at the moment to think about our health, both mentally and physically.

I have below listed my top tips for winter wellness, which are mostly based on published evidence, however I have also listed personal insights from some of you about how you keep well. While wellness does involve things like nutrition and physical exercise, and while these things are important for your body and brain, it involves things that make you happy too. I would like to emphasise that winter can be a difficult time, and that what ever it is that brings you joy and comfort is what is right for you.

Evidence Based Lifestyle Tips For Winter Wellness

  1. Daylight

In my post detailing the science behind S.A.D, I discussed that the main hypothesis for the emergence of winter depression is due to the declining levels of daylight. While it is still not yet known why a lack of daylight contributes to a worsening of mood, the relationship between daylight and wellbeing is well established.

Getting outside during the day and exposing yourself to light has been shown to improve sleep health and mood[1][2].  One early study found that a morning walk in winter months is sufficient in improving sleep difficulty and mood symptoms regardless of weather conditions [3]. The authors write that going outdoors is a “practicable, simple and cheap therapeutic alternative”. It may be difficult to get out if you suffer greatly from S.A.D or if you work, but on days where you feel well enough, or on weekends, a winter’s walk can do a world of good.

It is worth mentioning here that light therapy (LT) can work well for improving mood during the winter months and there is a lot of research to back this up[4]. This is another option for those struggling to find time to spend outdoors.

2. Movement and Exercise

In my previous post, I wrote about zeitgebers (time-givers). Zeitgebers are external regulators of biological rhythms, like light levels helping to regulate your sleep-wake cycle. Another zeitgeber is understood to be movement and exercise. There have been a few studies looking at exercise and S.A.D specifically, finding that regular exercise can be beneficial for sleep and mood [5].

Interestingly, studies have looked at the effects of exercise when in a bright light space, or exercisers who are exposed to natural light and found that exercise is more beneficial to S.A.D symptoms when accompanied by exposure to light [6][7]. Even though it is well established the general benefits of exercise on depression, these studies suggest an added importance of combining exercise with either natural light exposure or LT during the winter months. This could be indoor exercise with LT, or outdoor exercise light walking or running.

I think at the moment, especially when we are predominantly stuck indoors and usually in the same space all day every day due to restrictions and lockdowns, that getting outside is not just good for winter wellness, but also for wellbeing more generally. Taking a step away from the everyday views of our homes and engaging with nature for any amount of time I think is good for the mind, body and soul and is incredibly important for all of us during this time.

3. Nutrition and Nourishment

It goes without saying that what you eat has some importance when considering mental health. The world is becoming more and more interested in the effects of food on mood. Previously, I shared a study demonstrating that vegetarianism is a factor that might contribute to the development of S.A.D, and it is felt this is due to the protein consumption. Maybe it is important, especially in the winter for those of us who engage with some form of plant-based diet, to consider our protein intake.

A systematic review found this year that for S.A.D specifically, there are no known nutritional interventions that could largely influence/benefit S.A.D. This is partially due to lack of evidence or good quality research [8].  It is important to eat good quality food, and maintain a healthy diet for our physical and mental health generally but unfortunately there is no evidence at the moment to suggest that any supplement or diet will reduce symptoms of winter depression.


Other Top Tips

4. Talk, Talk, Talk

I think one of the most important things to do when you feel down is to reach out. Letting others know that you feel rubbish can let other people in and support you. Talking can also help relieve what you’re feeling by getting it out instead of keeping everything in. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to friends or family, there are wonderful people out there who are ready to support you via the Samaritans or ShoutUK. You are never alone with what you are feeling and someone is there to help you.

5. Finding purpose

At the moment, in a world where most of us are stuck at home, with little social interaction or anything to motivate us forwards I think it is important to find something that gives you a purpose. This could be picking up a new hobby, getting creative and starting an online shop, writing blog posts, or by engaging in a charitable cause. When life becomes the same, day in and day out, I find that, for me, motivation and enjoyment for life dwindle. Finding a purpose, big or small, could go a long way in restoring some love for life and motivation to keep going.

6. Step away from the news

Something I found, especially at the beginning of lockdown, was that the news could be very overwhelming and depressing. On my twitter feed I have had the words “Covid-19” and other associated words muted since March as otherwise, I was surrounded with the bad news and the numbers everywhere I turned. Stepping away from the news can feel a bit strange, especially with all that has been happening this year with the pandemic, the fight for racial equality, the US election and so much more. It is important to try and create a boundary with the news, knowing when it is too overwhelming and turning everything off. The world will not stop turning if you delete your BBC news app or mute some words on twitter. You can still keep up to date whilst protecting your space from the ongoing worldly negativity.

7. Self care + Do what you enjoy

Perhaps what will make the biggest difference is treating yourself with compassion and not pushing yourself too hard. Knowing when you can and you can’t is important. There is a fine line between going for it, and going too hard. While things like exercise and nutrition are generally good for your health, eating comfort food and lying under a blanket because it makes you feel protected is as important as anything else. Self care comes in balance with keeping yourself healthy, and letting yourself relax. Keeping well shouldn’t be a battle. There is nothing wrong with feeling like you can’t face the world on some days. Have a bath, light some candles, spend an hour or four catching up on whatever programme you’re into, order in a Domino’s, play The Legend of Zelda for three days in a row (guilty). Life is about balance. Don’t push yourself.


Some insights from others on personal ways to keep well:

“Reading!! Can take your mind on an adventure while stuck at home.”

“Warm baths, daily exercise & yoga, long walks and dog cuddles (or any animals!) reading books and journaling.”

“Taking things one day at a time.”

“Nice cup of green tea, good book and a blanket”

“Binge watching Netflix, reading books and PJ days!”

“Lots of time for myself, trips to the beach, long walks, cosy clothes, warn candles and lights + relaxing, hot drinks and lots of cosy activities.”

Thank you to those who shared these with me.


In my previous post I listed some resources should you feel you need support or additional information.

If you would like to share how you keep well during winter, I would love to hear it! Feel free to comment on this post or if you would like it included above, drop me a message on my Instagram or Twitter.

As always thank you for reading, I hope you are all keeping well during this strange time and I wish you all the best.


References

[1] Mariana G. Figueiro and others, ‘The Impact of Daytime Light Exposures on Sleep and Mood in Office Workers’, Sleep Health, 3.3 (2017), 204–15 <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sleh.2017.03.005&gt;.

[2] Kyungah Choi and others, ‘Awakening Effects of Blue-Enriched Morning Light Exposure on University Students’ Physiological and Subjective Responses’, Scientific Reports, 9.1 (2019), 345 <https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-36791-5&gt;.

[3] A. Wirz-Justice and others, ‘“Natural” Light Treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder’, Journal of Affective Disorders, 37.2–3 (1996), 109–20 <https://doi.org/10.1016/0165-0327(95)00081-x&gt;.

[4] Giulia Menculini and others, ‘Depressive Mood and Circadian Rhythms Disturbances as Outcomes of Seasonal Affective Disorder Treatment: A Systematic Review’, Journal of Affective Disorders, 241 (2018), 608–26 <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2018.08.071&gt;.

[5] T. Partonen and others, ‘Randomized Trial of Physical Exercise Alone or Combined with Bright Light on Mood and Health-Related Quality of Life’, Psychological Medicine, 28.6 (1998), 1359–64 <https://doi.org/10.1017/s0033291798007491&gt;.

[6] K. N. Groom and M. E. O’Connor, ‘Relation of Light and Exercise to Seasonal Depressive Symptoms: Preliminary Development of a Scale’, Perceptual and Motor Skills, 83.2 (1996), 379–83 <https://doi.org/10.2466/pms.1996.83.2.379&gt;.

[7] Sami J. Leppämäki and others, ‘Randomized Trial of the Efficacy of Bright-Light Exposure and Aerobic Exercise on Depressive Symptoms and Serum Lipids’, The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 63.4 (2002), 316–21.

[8] Yongde Yang and others, ‘The Role of Diet, Eating Behavior, and Nutrition Intervention in Seasonal Affective Disorder: A Systematic Review’, Frontiers in Psychology, 11 (2020), 1451 <https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01451&gt;.

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