How To Survive the Scandinavian Winter

Beat the Winter Blues with Lundtan

In the temperate regions of the world, fall is identified by the brightly colored foliage that gradually drops from trees and shrubs to carpet the ground. As we are currently moving towards the end of November, autumn turns to winter, marking a seasonal change, as lack of daylight hours and a significant temperature drop indicates that winter is coming (and no I don’t refer to the white walkers entering Winterfell). Scandinavians strive every year to beat what is referred to as Winter Blues, and in more profound cases Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which is a depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern. SAD is also known by “winter depression”, as the symptoms usually are more evident and severe during winter. In the North of the Scandinavian countries, there is darkness around the clock in winter time, and overall a serious cut in hours of daylight. So, how do the Nordic nations survive cold and dark winter times, whilst simultaneously representing some of the happiest people in the world?

In Sweden, 8 percent were estimated to suffer from SAD in 2017, with an additional 11 percent who said they suffered from winter blues. Indeed, previous research confirms the idea that our physical and mental health varies with the seasons and sunlight, precluding the claim that Winter Blues is just a myth. But exactly what is it that affects us during the winter time?

Melatonin is a natural hormone produced by the pineal gland in the brain, and is thereafter released into our bloodstream. The hormone is often referred to as the sleeping hormone, as a high level of melatonin can make you fall asleep. Darkness causes the pineal gland to produce melatonin, while light on the other hand leads the production to cease. Hence, one explanation to why people feel more tired and less productive during wintertime is because we produce more melatonin. In the summer, it has the opposite effect on us, as bright morning light suppresses any residual melatonin that would make us sleepy. The mild version of melatonin is therefore referred to as winter blues. 

The body’s internal clock (circadian rhythm) concerns how our body uses sunlight to time different important functions, such as when we wake up. Less light levels may disrupt the body clock, and thereby lead to symptoms of SAD, such as persistently low mood, loss of interest in normal everyday activities, irritability, lack of energy and feelings of despair and worthlessness. As winter represents lack of daylight and more darkness, our body clock is notably affected during the winter months.

Serotonin is a hormone that affects our mood, appetite and sleep. Deficiency of sunlight can cause lower serotonin levels, which is tied to feelings of depression. Surprisingly, this also applies to our furry friends as well. Researchers from the University of British Columbia found that 40% of dog owners saw a downturn in their pets’ moods during winter months, as a result of differing serotonin and melatonin levels.

So, as we are now aware of how the winter months affect us all (four-legged and two-legged) and the process that happens in our brain and body, we are faced with the pivotal question of this article, how to beat the Winter Blues if you don’t have the Scandinavian Viking gene?

Positive mindset. It sounds dismissively easy, but acquiring a more positive attitude actually helps to beat the winter blues. Between 2014 and 2015, psychologist Kari Leibowitz from Stanford University stayed ten months in Tromsø, Norway, in an attempt to find out how individuals dealt with the cold, dark winter. Together with researcher Joar Vittersø at the University of Tromsø, Leibowitz conducted a survey on people living in the Tromsø, Svalbard and Oslo area. The result showed that the farther north people lived, the more positive mindset they had towards winter. In the south of Norway, people had a different, more negative approach to winter. In the north on the other hand, the approach to winter was based on greater life satisfaction and a willingness to tackle challenges with the goal of achieving greater personal growth. Thus, changing your thinking and behavior may have a bigger effect than you think.

Light is the antidote of melatonin, the hormone that makes us sleepy and tired. Therefore, it is important to take advantage of the little daylight there is during winter. Go outside for a walk, enjoy fresh air and appreciate the days of sunlight, listen to a podcast on your walk, call a friend, or go buy a cup of coffee – and don’t forget to bring your dog if you have one, they need their everyday dose of daylight just as much. Lightning candles is also proven to have a positive effect on depression and our mood, with its minimal light source and peaceful ambiance.

SAD Lightbox for winter blues, is an app for seasonal depression. Light therapy is one of the potential treatments for SAD, and the app converts your Apple device into a light box. The app asserts that around 80% of the people who try light therapy find it beneficial, and the therapy includes more than various apps, i.e. desk lamps.

Find activities to do in the winter time that pulls you out of your hibernation mode. Go skiing, ice-skating, hiking, or try some new indoor activities such as knitting, sports like tennis, paddle, badminton and so on, painting, or maybe guest writing for Lundtan? 

Exercise. Dr. Andrew McCulloch, former chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, researched the mental health benefits of exercise. He stated that:

“There’s convincing evidence that 30 minutes of vigorous exercise three times a week is effective against depression and anecdotal evidence that lighter exercise will have a beneficial effect, too”.

Dr. Andrew McCulloch

Talk to someone. If you are feeling depressed, unmotivated, sad or maybe you just have a lot on your mind, it can truly help to talk to someone about it. If you don’t feel like talking to a friend or a family member, Lund University has a Student Health Centre that helps students with problems with psychological issues. The Student Health Centre has counselors, nurses, psychologist, psychiatrist and a physiotherapist to support students. Find more information and book an appointment here.

Vitamin D. From late March/early April to the end of September, most people are able to get all the vitamin D they need from sunlight. As you might already know, the body creates vitamin D from direct sunlight on the skin when we are outdoor. In the autumn/winter period however, we don’t get enough of the natural vitamin D from sunlight. Taking vitamin D supplements during the winter period is therefore recommended. You also find vitamin D in some foods, such as oily fishes (salmon, sardines, herring and mackerel), fish roe, egg yolk and margarine.

Brain Foods. According to a Health Report from Harvard Medical School, some foods have been proven to have a positive effect on our brains, simultaneously as they protect our heart and blood vessels. In their Health Report five foods were linked to better brain power: green, leafy vegetables such as kale, spinach and broccoli, fatty fish, berries, tea and coffee and walnuts. Read more about why these foods grant better brain power here.

Regular sleep schedule. Studies have shown a link between depression and abnormal sleep patterns, as poor or inadequate sleep can cause stress, while regular, healthy sleep can enhance well-being. Read more about why it is important to sleep in Anton’s article, Why We Sleep.

Hygge. We are entering the best time of year for indoor coziness. Light candles, watch a movie or begin watching a new series, read a good book, host cozy dinners, make a big cup of tea or hot chocolate, bake, and appreciate the time you have with your close ones. 

Winter is coming. But, remember; it’s only temporary.

Literature: 

Gettes, L. March 14 2017. How Scandinavians Deal With Long, Dark Winters. Available online: https://www.vice.com/en/article/78qwby/how-scandinavians-deal-with-long-dark-winters (accessed 13.10.2020) 

Suni, E. August 6 (2020) Melatonin and Sleep. Medically Reviewed by Dr. Alex Dimitriu. Published by Sleep foundation. Available online: https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/melatonin-and-sleep 

NHS. N.d. Seasonal affective disorder. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder-sad/ 

Krogh, V., L. 19 of October (2013). Får du i deg nok vitamin D? https://bramat.no/kosthold/naeringsstoffer/446-far-du-i-deg-nok-vitamin-d 

Harvard Medical School. Foods linked to better brainpower. N.d. https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/foods-linked-to-better-brainpower

No Comments Yet

Comments are closed