Even though it looked like it was going to last forever, it seems like we’re finally entering the end of summer in the UK. Autumn officially begins in three days – the 23rd September – and with it comes crunchy leaves, cosy jumpers and as much pumpkin spice latte as you can drink. However with autumn comes long nights, cold days and dark mornings, along with the early onset of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) for many people. Also known as the “winter blues”, SAD is similar to depression and brought on by different seasons – usually winter.
It’s no surprise that the winter leaves us feeling blue. Low levels of sunlight results in a lack of Vitamin D, which in turn affects the hormones melatonin and serotonin in the parts of your brain that control mood, sleep and appetite. If you’re affected by SAD, you might find yourself feeling unhappy, craving carbohydrate-rich foods and feeling more lethargic. Low levels of Vitamin D can play havoc with your circadian system (your body’s internal clock) leaving you feeling groggy during the day. On average, women and young people are more likely to experience SAD (although it’s reported that men often feel it more intensely). Where you live can also be a contributing factor. It’s not just the difference between Orkney and the Isle of Wight: those who live nearer the planet’s equator where the change between seasons is less pronounced are less likely to be affected by SAD than those who live further away.
Unfortunately, not everyone can afford to emigrate to the Maldives (which sit right above the equator). The best way to combat SAD is with the use of a SAD Lamp, designed to reproduce the UV rays produced by the sun. While these are often highly effective, they can be expensive and work best when used alongside other methods…So how can you combat the winter blues at home (and in your garden)?
You Are My Sunshine
It’s been proven time and time again that exposure to bright sunlight is directly related to the brain’s production rate of serotonin, also known as the “happy chemical”. Low levels of serotonin are directly related to a host of mental health conditions, from depression to chronic diseases like Parkinson’s.
The first step you can take is to start chasing the sun while you can. Lots of working adults will spend all day inside, and once the clocks change at the end of October, many of us will miss out on the crucial hours of daylight we experience while travelling to and from work. As the sun begins to set earlier and earlier, there’s one complaint that everyone will make: we’re leaving the house before the sun has risen and coming home long after the sun has set. Gone are sunlit commutes, or the chance to sit in the garden with a meal or a drink to unwind after a long day in the office.
In the UK, if you work longer than six hours a day you’ve got the right to one uninterrupted 20 minute break. If you’re at work during daylight hours, try to take a walk during your break – even if it’s just around the block or to the shop and back! Even on overcast days (which are going to get more common as autumn turns into winter), the UV rays from the sun can still reach you, helping to boost your Vitamin D levels. During winter it’s tempting to avoid the chill and stay inside, but talking a brisk walk every day can really help those suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, so grab a coat and get outside!
Let’s Go In The Garden
There’s a tradition for gardeners to “tuck in the garden” when the cold weather hits. This means tidying the garden, collecting seeds and laying mulch and fleeces in preparation for the spring, putting your garden (and your green thumbs) into hibernation. While it might be chilly outside, your garden can still thrive during the winter, and after all: there’s no bad weather, just unsuitable clothing!
This winter, get yourself a pair of sturdy wellies, a thick coat and maybe even some heated clothing to really keep the cold off, and get out into the garden. There’s lots to do in the garden over winter, from pruning plants to simply having a thorough tidy.
Not all plants and flowers thrive best during the summer, and there’s a whole host of winter bloomers ready and waiting to fill your garden with colour even on the frostiest day. Winter Honeysuckle is a great shrub which blooms with delicate white flowers, and the impressive Midwinter Fire dogwood adds impressive reds and oranges to your beds and borders. A great tip is to plant winter plants and flowers in pots and planters and place them near to the house. On a dreary winter day, getting to the other end of the garden can feel like a herculean challenge, and pottering about just a few meters away from the warmth of the house is a lot easier. By keeping plants near the house, you can also enjoy their colour and scent for longer (even when you’re not outside). If you do have a lot of winter growers planted in the ground, you can cut and gather stems to display indoors to brighten up your home. One of the most rewarding winter gardening jobs is planting a bare-root tree ready for the spring. Bare root trees need to be planted between November and March, when the tree is dormant, so it can flourish when the weather starts to warm up.
Several studies have shown a link between gardening and better mental health. Gardening not only gets you outside, where you can absorb more sunlight, but is also good physical exercise – which is particularly important during the winter. By putting aside time for the garden between November and March you can help to give your mood a boost as well as getting the satisfaction of a well-tended garden.
The Great Indoors
Not everyone has a garden, and for many people getting outside can be too overwhelming when the sky’s dark and there’s a chill in the air. A great alternative is to bring the outdoors indoors and invest in a wide variety of houseplants. While there’s been less research on the impact houseplants can have on your health, there’s lots of studies that suggest they can positively impact both your physical and mental health.
Houseplants have a great capacity to improve the quality of the air in your home. Air pollution levels are often higher indoors, especially during the winter (when ventilation is worse). Being indoors for long periods of time can result in something known as Sick Building Syndrome (yes, really!) which manifests as physical symptoms such as headaches, itchy skin and eyes, and a runny nose. These feelings can be exacerbated by poor ventilation and bad air quality. Houseplants absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen, improving the quality of the air around them. It’s also thought that plants can absorb and remove VOCs (volatile organic compounds): indoor contaminants emitted by furnishings, cleaning material and paints.
There’s a lot of easy-to-grow houseplants out there, and they’re great not just for your home but for your office or workplace too. Indoor plants have been found to help increase productivity, reduce levels of stress and improve general mood as well as helping to lower blood pressure and one study even reported a 25% drop in the occurrence of headaches after plants were introduced to an environment.
Filling your house with plants during the winter can be a great way to keep your mood boosted during the winter and stave off the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder. It can also help to really get hands-on with the growing process. Repot houseplants sold in too-small containers, keep a rigorous schedule for watering (especially if, like my houseplants, yours all have distinctly different watering needs) and prune them when necessary. Planting a window box is a great way to get really involved with indoor gardening, especially if you’re planting edibles. A kitchen herb garden means you can garden on a miniature scale, and there’s nothing so satisfying as knowing your hard work has paid off when you can add home-grown herbs to your meals. You can also grow a variety of veggies indoors over the winter, such as tomatoes, kale, chard, or mushrooms.
Keeping on top of your planters, going for regular walks and filling your home with impressive houseplants is a great start, but over the winter it’s also important to make sure you’re eating healthily and taking multi-vitamins to help your body along during these colder months. Even low-impact exercise is a great way to naturally boost your body’s serotonin production, great for keeping the blues at bay.
If you’re struggling this winter, and can’t seem to boost your mood and find it affecting your day-to-day life, career, or your relationships you should visit your GP to discuss what options are available to you. Counselling and therapy are great options for people who need extra help over winter, and CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and mindfulness can help us to examine the way we think and teach us how to allow negative thoughts to pass more peacefully. In some cases, your doctor might want to prescribe short-term antidepressants such as SSRIs, which are designed to increase your body’s serotonin production levels.
SAD effects around 6% of the UK population and 1 in 3 people report suffering from “winter blues” in some way. During short days, we simply can’t get enough of the vitamins needed for healthy serotonin production. It’s important to remember that if you’re suffering for the effects of SAD, you’re not alone, and try to appreciate the unique beauty that winter brings to your garden.
Lotti works with the Primrose Product Loading team, creating product descriptions and newsletter headers.
When not writing, Lotti enjoys watching (and over-analyzing) indie movies with a pint from the local craft brewery or cosplaying at London Comic Con.
Lotti is learning to roller skate, with limited success.