Cold, dark days getting you down? Tips to brighten even the darkest of months

THE tree is down and the fairy lights have been put away for another year. Meanwhile, Blue Monday is hurtling towards us (that’s January 17, FYI). 

It’s hardly known for being the happiest month of the year – last January was the saddest on record, according to the Office for National Statistics. 

“There are many reasons for low mood when it’s cold and dark. If you’re staying in more to keep out of the cold, or to avoid the threat of Covid, then you’re both decreasing your connection with nature and increasing your social isolation – two things we know are very important to human happiness,” says GP Dr Zoe Watson.

“The lack of sunlight is also a factor. There have been many studies linking low vitamin D intake to low mood, and humans rely on sunlight for 90% of their RDA of the vitamin.” 

But don’t write off January just yet, because some activities boost the chemicals – such as serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins – our body needs to be happy.

And it’s easier than you think to banish the blues, even during a pandemic.

Serotonin Aka The Mood Stabiliser

Step outside It’s not just vitamin D you gain from exposure to sunlight. It triggers the release of serotonin to literally give you a sunny disposition. Try to head outside for at least 20 minutes before midday to help you sleep better at night, too.

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Start gardening We all know spending time in nature has benefits, but did you know that getting your hands dirty could actually boost your serotonin levels? When you disrupt the soil, it stirs up the microbes in it, and one in particular – mycobacterium vaccae – when inhaled, triggers the release of serotonin in the brain.

Eat eggs Certain foods contain the building blocks needed to make happiness hormones. One essential amino acid needed in the production of serotonin is tryptophan. “Find it in eggs, lean meats and dairy,” says Daisy York, nutritionist and co-founder of Meetaegle.com.

Choose dark chocolate Another readily available boost of serotonin can come from dark chocolate. And Love Cocoa ups the feel-good vibes further by planting a tree for every bar you buy.

Oxytocin Aka The Love Drug

Get intimate “Oxytocin is the hormone of connection and bonding, and our brain craves this in order to help us forge connections, keep our loved ones close and build a community,” says Marianne Killick, an integrative women’s health coach. That’s why touch, including sex, cuddles or just holding hands, offers an easy route to releasing more of this feel-good chemical in your brain.

Accept a compliment Being able to take a compliment increases your sense of self-worth, but also produces a chemical reaction in your brain and makes you feel good. Giving out compliments and having positive conversations does, too. So if you think something nice about someone, say it!

Have a massage It’s not just connecting physically with a loved one that releases oxytocin. “The gentle touch of a massage also encourages the release of oxytocin in the brain,” says massage therapist Vicky Robinson from Elysium Holistic.

Phone a friend It’s time to ditch texting and hit dial, as studies suggests that actually hearing a pal’s voice can lower stress and boost levels of the love drug.

“Feeling connected even through a call helps us feel safe and secure, and that can release oxytocin,” says Sheena Tanna-Shah, rapid transformation therapy and wellbeing coach.

Get or borrow a pet “As a bonus, being with our pets reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and could lower your risk of stroke and heart attack,” says life coach and founder of The People Person, Lara Cullen.

Dopamine Aka The Reward Chemical

Show gratitude Dopamine is your brain’s motivational reward system. Each time you engage in activities that ensure your genes have a good chance of surviving – like eating food or having sex – you feel good. But recognising how good your life is can have a similar impact.

“When we express gratitude, either by writing it down in a gratitude journal or saying it aloud to family and friends, our brain releases dopamine,” says Sheena. “Focusing on the positives strengthens the neural pathways in the brain, which over time allow us to consistently feel content with what we have.”

Get moving “Regular exercise changes the reward system in your brain, leading to higher levels of dopamine and more dopamine receptors,” explains David Starr, sports scientist at Eat Drink Win. Exercise can not only help reduce depression but also increase your capacity for joy. “Aerobic fitness, such as jogging, swimming, cycling, brisk walking and skipping, is best,’ he adds.

Celebrate small wins Dopamine can be triggered by achievements and completing tasks, which is why setting goals or to-do lists and planning steps to tick them off can be super-helpful. “Write down goals, ensure they are bite-sized, and reward yourself as you progress,” suggests Sheena.

Endorphins Aka The PainKiller

Try acupuncture “The body perceives the needles used in acupuncture as an injury and so stimulates the production of endorphins to head to the site and relieve the body from pain. It brings cortisol stress hormone levels down in doing so. 

That’s why someone might come in to have their shoulder treated, but realise they start sleeping better and their mood is balanced out,” explains acupuncturist Maria Christofi.

Order a vindaloo When the chemical capsaicin, which gives chillies heat, hits your tongue, your body registers it as pain. Since endorphins reduce sensitivity to pain, each time you eat spicy food, your brain releases these feel-good hormones.

Watch a comedy “Scientists have found that the physical effect on the abdominal muscles when we laugh stimulates the body to release endorphins,” says Lara. So get giggling!

SHOP FOR SMILES

BetterYou D3000 Vitamin D Daily Oral Spray, £8.49: The sunshine vitamin helps regulate mood, and a deficiency has been linked to increased risk of depression.

Healthspan High Strength Vitamin B Complex, £9.95: Those with low levels of vitamin B1 (thiamin) are more likely to be depressed, and vitamins B2 (riboflavin), B6 (pyridoxine) and B12 all have a beneficial effect on mood.

A Vogel Passiflora Complex Spray, £10.99: Containing herbal remedy passiflora incarnata, AKA passionflower,  it helps boost GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) in the brain. This reduces brain activity and can aid relaxation and help relieve anxiety.

  • Stockists: A Vogel (Avogel.co.uk), Better You (Hollandandbarrett.com), Healthspan (Healthspan.co.uk), Love Cocoa (Lovecocoa.com)

Visit: Mariannekillick.com and follow @Acupunture_is_alchemy on Instagram

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