I worked with Bang & Olufsen in northern Denmark for my university placement year. At the time, they were re-writing their mental health policies because an entire department had been signed off work for 6 full months by the doctors, due primarily to depression and seasonal affective disorder. This was something that had happened during the winter period, and they were definitely not the only people who were away from work during that time, so lets look at why.
I expect that most people have heard of “Blue Monday”. Sky Travel coined the term in 2005, claiming to have used an equation to calculate the date and that it was the most depressing day of the year. It’s worth noting that it moves each year to remain on the third Monday of January rather than a specific date each year. Of course, this means that it’s only applicable in the northern (part of the northern) hemisphere – the third Monday in January in Sao Paulo, Johannesburg, or Adelaide for example will be in the middle of Summer.
You may also have heard of SAD, which in this context stands for Seasonal Affective Disorder. This is a pattern of depression which is seasonally influenced, typically being worse in the darker winter months, though it can be worse in the summer. SAD is not fully understood, but is thought to be linked to reduced exposure to sunlight in winter leading to:
- Increased melatonin production, which leads to increased sleepiness
- Reduced serotonin production, which affects mood, appetite, sleep and depression
- Altered circadian rhythm, your body recognises daylight for controlling your “body clock”
It is worth noting that SAD also appears to be more prevalent within families than in the general population, so there may also be a genetic component. Humans separated genetically from the other apes approximately 4 – 6 million years ago, and started to spread from Africa approximately 300,000 years ago. The apes have never left Africa, Asia and the tropics, but humans have explored far and wide. The truth is, since humans left Africa, we simply haven’t had the time to widely adapt to the colder, darker and more variable northern climates.
You may not be personally affected by Blue Monday, you may not have Seasonal Affective Disorder, maybe you aren’t depressed at all, but this blog will still be applicable to you because this is also all about general health. Even if you are in perfect health, your body will be affected by the seasons because you’re a human, so the advice contained herein will help you to better yourself.
The main advice for treating seasonal affective disorder is, unsurprisingly, to live a healthier lifestyle. So as always, a healthy diet will assist, as will regular exercise and managing your stress levels, but specifically for a SAD, get as much natural sunlight as possible. The first three points are good advice for your general health, but sunlight in particular will help your body maintain a natural circadian rhythm allowing you to sleep better at night and feel more awake in the day.
Furthermore, getting sunlight on your skin will increase serotonin production in your body to support nerve cell and brain function. While the travel companies definitely want your money for a winter break, it turns out that a bit of sunbathing in winter actually really is good for your health! For those, like me, who like the cold though, big coats, hats, boots and gloves… Sadly winter sunlight will have negligible impact on your serotonin levels if you’re covered up, you need to have the sun on your skin.
However, you may not be able to afford a trip to the tropics in winter, either financially or time away from family. Maybe you like to have Christmas at home. Maybe you’re always cold and really love being wrapped up. You’re going to struggle to get sunlight in the UK in winter, and in these modern times we’re unlikely to even get a nice white winter, we’ll just get the “grey and miserable”. All is not lost!
All is NOT lost! Companies such as Lumie, Beurer, GeMoor and Philips make SAD lights. These are lamps designed to mimic sunlight which you can use indoors to support your bodies natural circadian rhythm. Depending on the model, these can be used as standalone lamps to simulate bright sunlight during the day, particularly on dark days or you can get them that also work as an alarm. SAD light alarms will mimic a sunrise at the time you’re wanting to wake up – you really can make the sun stand still and rise when YOU want it to!
Say you decide to set your alarm for 7am, in winter in the UK it is going to be dark for at least another hour so you won’t get a “natural” sunlight wake up, so your SAD light will do it for you. At 6:30, it will begin to light up and will get brighter until 7am, to mimic the sunrise before you wake up. So while you’re asleep, your body is already preparing to wake up and if you have an audible alarm at 7am, your natural sleep pattern will have adjusted towards wakefulness and you will have a “sunlight” wakeup.
Even if you can’t practically use your light alarm clock on a morning for whatever reason, you can use your light as just that – a light. As I write this, I have my light on my desk shining into my face. I’m just at my desk working as normal, but as my window faces north, and it’s winter. My natural light is very limited, so this light is simulating the sunlight and my brain is beginning to believe that I’m experiencing nature.
While a light is no substitute for truly being in nature, it’s a fantastic way to enhance your environment and also your mood – particularly if you’re working in a home office.
I’m resolutely NOT advocating for daylight lights in all office spaces, because the reality is that it does not work in large spaces to mimic a meadow, for example. Individually though, we can all have our own little suns with us to make our own worlds better.
So if we all make our own worlds a tiny bit better, our interactions with each other will all be improved, our productivity will increase, we’ll have more energy, feel more positive… Sounds like a miracle cure but based on my experience of it, it really is a noticeable difference and I think it might be worth trying out.