Michael Mosley

Focus-Science and Technology - - CONTENTS -

Im­prove your mood this win­ter.

This is a mis­er­able time of year. The days are get­ting shorter, colder and damper and there is still a long way to go un­til Christ­mas.

A study pub­lished a cou­ple of years ago in the jour­nal Epi­demi­ol­ogy showed strik­ing ev­i­dence that early win­ter casts a ma­lign shadow. By in­spect­ing hospi­tal records be­tween 1995 and 2012, Dan­ish re­searchers dis­cov­ered that the num­ber of peo­ple di­ag­nosed with mod­er­ate to se­vere de­pres­sion jumps by 11 per cent every Novem­ber.

One of the re­searchers, Dr Søren Di­ne­sen Øster­gaard, told me this in­crease is too large and con­sis­tent to be a co­in­ci­dence. He also thinks it is linked to the fact that Dan­ish clocks go back an hour at the end of Oc­to­ber, as they do in the UK. So in his view this Novem­ber surge is likely to be psy­cho­log­i­cal rather than phys­i­cal.

I think he may be onto some­thing, but I also think there are phys­i­o­log­i­cal rea­sons why we get gloomier in win­ter. A cou­ple of years ago I was di­ag­nosed with sea­sonal af­fec­tive dis­or­der (SAD). I get more gloomy and in­tro­spec­tive as the win­ter wears on. I also be­come more stressed and anx­ious. I sleep badly, find it harder to get mo­ti­vated and I de­velop a crav­ing for sug­ary carbs.

I’m not bad enough to need an­tide­pres­sants or psy­chother­apy, but last year I bought a light box, which now sits be­side my com­puter, bathing me in 10,000 lux of bright white light for an hour or so each day. I also take the dog on early walks since ex­er­cise out­doors in the morn­ing light seems to be par­tic­u­larly ef­fec­tive at re­duc­ing the im­pact of SAD. And it seems to be work­ing

If you suf­fer from win­ter gloom, as well get­ting more light you could try chang­ing what you eat. In an Aus­tralian study called Smiles (Sup­port­ing the Mod­i­fi­ca­tion of life­style in Low­ered Emo­tional States) 67 pa­tients with mod­er­ate or se­vere de­pres­sion, most of whom were on med­i­ca­tion or hav­ing psy­chother­apy, were ran­domly al­lo­cated to either a Mediter­ranean-style diet (less sweets and fast food; more fruit and veg, and red wine rather than beer or spir­its) or ‘so­cial sup­port’. Af­ter 12 weeks 32 per cent of those on the Med diet went into re­mis­sion com­pared with eight per cent in the con­trol group. Those who stuck clos­est to the Mediter­ranean diet en­joyed the big­gest im­prove­ment in mood.

Other mood en­hancers we have tested on my BBC series, Trust Me, I’m A Doc­tor, in­clude yoga, gar­den­ing or mind­ful­ness. Last year we ran an eight-week ex­per­i­ment with Prof An­gela Clow of West­min­ster Univer­sity, in which we re­cruited 68 vol­un­teers and split them into four groups. One group was asked to join Green Gym, a char­ity that en­cour­ages peo­ple to plant trees, sow mead­ows and es­tab­lish wildlife ponds. A sec­ond group was sent to a weekly yoga class, while a third was pre­scribed a daily dose of mind­ful­ness. We also had a con­trol group, who were asked to con­tinue as nor­mal.

Clow and her team asked the vol­un­teers to fill in ques­tion­naires be­fore and af­ter, and also mea­sured their lev­els of the stress hor­mone cor­ti­sol. At the end of eight weeks, the gar­den­ing and the yoga groups had both im­proved com­pared with the con­trols, although mind­ful­ness came out on top. What I found in­ter­est­ing was the wide range of re­sponses. Although some peo­ple got a lot of ben­e­fit from th­ese in­ter­ven­tions, oth­ers got none. It turned out that the best pre­dic­tor of whether you would ben­e­fit or not was whether you en­joyed it. And on that note, I’m off to walk my dog again.


Michael Mosley is a sci­ence writer and broad­caster, who presents Trust Me, I’m A Doc­tor on BBC Two. His lat­est book is The Clever Guts Diet (£8.99, Short Books).

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