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.
“EXERCISE OUTDOORS SEEMS TO BE PARTICULARLY EFFECTIVE”
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).