Preventing winter depression

More light and outdoor exercise

A significant amount of people find things more difficult in autumn and winter. For a good quarter of people, their mood starts to drop rapidly during the darker months of the year, and for some it even develops into seasonal affective disorder (SAD). As the nights become longer and the days colder, many begin to dread the cold, damp times ahead.

For some people, days are just grey and more grey. Once the last vestiges of summer are over, the weather turns gloomy and the stage is set for the notorious autumn blues. In addition, the increased psychological stress caused by the coronavirus pandemic is having a large-scale impact for the first time this year, as countless studies have confirmed.

The NAKO health study conducted by University Hospital Heidelberg showed that study participants reported significantly greater anxiety, more pronounced stress and increased depression. Those aged under 60, particularly women, complained of increased symptoms of anxiety and depression. The proportion of moderate to severe depressive symptoms also increased from 6.4 to 8.8%.

The survey also reported that respondents’ perceptions of their own stress levels had increased across all age groups and for both genders. Just recently, family researchers warned that the psychological stress caused by the coronavirus pandemic should not be underestimated, even among young people. According to a new study, almost 500,000 more adolescents aged 16 – 19 exhibited symptoms of depression than before the pandemic.

The psychological collateral damage of the coronavirus crisis

Coronavirus measures led to massive cuts in mental health treatment, as well as a breakdown in the structure of everyday life, which is particularly important for patients with mental health issues. Currently, 44% of people with diagnosed depression are reporting that their illness has worsened in the last six months, and some have even attempted suicide. According to a current study, coronavirus has led to an additional 125 million cases of depression and anxiety disorders globally.

Women and young people have been particularly affected. In a current study, a team of researchers is estimating the extent of mental illnesses that can be attributed to the coronavirus pandemic. In the first year of the pandemic alone, the rates of depression and panic attacks have increased by more than a quarter globally.

According to the study, the number of people worldwide suffering from depressive disorders last year grew by 52 million as a result of the pandemic. At the same time, there were 76 million cases of anxiety disorders that wouldn’t have existed if it weren’t for the pandemic. The results appeared in the specialist publication “The Lancet”. For their investigation, the team analysed data from North America, Europe and East Asia, among others.

Even for people who don’t suffer from mental illness, the situation is considerably more troublesome than before the 1st lockdown, reports Deutsche Depressionshilfe [German Depression Help]. Paediatric psychiatrist Oliver Dierssen told the “Spiegel” that his patients don’t feel hopeful about the future, and that their problems aren’t over just because lockdown has ended. Put simply, this autumn and winter we may face things we haven’t seen before. Feeling down at this time of year is particularly common, even without coronavirus, and is considered as just typical autumn and winter blues. Sufferers feel depressed, tired, irritable, listless and apathetic.

Exercise in the fresh air

It goes without saying that these symptoms can be exacerbated during the darkest months of the year, but there are things we can do to counteract them. So let’s tackle the question of how we can improve our wellbeing during the coldest time of year and avoid sinking into autumn or winter depression. It’s well known that exercising in the fresh air is always a good idea.

Whether you go for a walk, Nordic walk, jog, bike ride or even hit the ski slopes, it’s all helpful for improving your mental health, because exercise activates the body’s happiness hormones. Going to the gym can also help to banish bad moods and make you feel better. Similarly, a massage or a visit to the sauna does you good during these cold months, and will help re-balance your hormones. A good rule of thumb is that anything that relaxes you will brighten your mood.

The sleep hormone melatonin is responsible for making you feel melancholy during autumn and winter.Fittingly, the scientific abbreviation for seasonal affective disorder is “SAD”. SAD is a type of depression that regularly occurs during autumn and winter, writes psychotherapist and neuroscientist Markus Heinrichs, Professor of Biological and Differential Psychology at the University of Freiburg.

The lack of light is a deciding factor

Light, exercise and fresh air prevent true autumn and winter blues. Getting enough daylight is a deciding factor, but the problem is that the days are shorter during autumn and winter, and the sun comes out less often. If we don’t get enough daylight, it changes the balance of neurotransmitters serotonin and melatonin in the brain, which makes us feel worn-out and tired. 

Consistently feeling tired is characteristic of winter depression, which means that sufferers find it hard to get out of bed. This affects our mental and physical health. The cause of winter depression is often attributed to a lack of daylight. Because of the increased darkness, our brain, and more specifically the pineal gland, receives signals that it’s nighttime.

This lack of light has been confirmed as the cause of low moods during autumn and winter. The changing light conditions are the obvious cause. There’s hardly any short-wave blue light, which is what makes us active and adventurous during summer. During autumn and winter, the light we see is red light, which makes us sleepy. Indoor lighting doesn’t help either, because we think we’re getting enough light. But it’s not nearly strong enough to get our brains in gear.

Daylight lamps could help you

There are remedies for this lack of light. If you’re susceptible to feeling low during autumn and winter, you can counteract this by using light therapy for at least half an hour a day. It’s best to go outside at midday when the light intensity is at its highest. If you’re not always able to do that, then a good alternative is using a medically certified daylight lamp with a minimum light intensity of 4,000 lux.

The best daylight lamps offer an intensity of 10,000 lux. A comparison: a normal summer’s day has a light intensity of 20,000 lux, a slightly sunny winter’s day provides around 6,000 lux, and office lighting a mere 500 lux, according to the German Federal Office for Radiation Protection.

Using a daylight lamp for 30 minutes in the morning is enough to break down melatonin, and according to Deutsche Depressionshilfe, light therapy is particularly effective against seasonal affective disorder. Hospitals also use daylight lamps to treat depression. It’s good to note that daylight lamps don’t use UV light, so they don’t provide any tanning effects, and won’t cause cancer.

The medisana LT 500 daylight lamp with four changing colours and a light intensity of 10,000 lux is a particularly good choice for light therapy to combat winter depression. Thanks to its two adjustable intensity levels, the medisana daylight lamp ensures uniform light distribution, and is also energy-saving, because the LT 500’s built-in LED light source keeps energy consumption low. The LT 500 daylight lamp can provide vitalising daylight at any time. There’s only one thing it can’t do: create vitamin D. Only the sun and actual daylight can do that.

Can vitamin D help combat depression?

It’s often said that this sun vitamin helps fight depression, but is it true? It’s undisputed that the sun is a real mood booster. We experience this every spring when our mood starts to pick up after winter. A clinical study conducted by the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston in 2020 on around 18,000 participants came to the following result: taking vitamin D for a period of five years showed no advantage over the placebo group in terms of protection against depression or low moods. 

A lack of vitamin D damages the musculoskeletal system, the bones, and the immune system. Possible consequences include bone pain, muscle weakness and osteomalacia. But vitamin D doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with depression. Spending a few minutes outside every day is enough to stimulate the body’s own production of vitamin D. The important thing to note is that there is no proven link between taking vitamin D and preventing depression.

We can only recommend going out in the fresh air and moving around as often as possible.

Stay healthy!