As soon as the days turn darker and the weather gets wet and cold, you can't ignore how your mood and motivation seem to wane as the day wears off, or how your energy levels seem to drop before it's even 3pm. Did you know your microbiome might be causing it?
The human microbiome is the sum of all the microorganisms living in and on the human body. All the fungi, parasites, bacteria, microbes...all of them coexisting and functioning together, with trillions and trillions of genes, impacting our every cell, and playing numerous key roles in every function of our body. And every person has a completely unique microbiome, originating from the moment of their birth, and later developed and constantly updated by the changes in their environmental exposures, diet, stress, lifestyle, and activity.
By putting just this information about the microbiome in perspective, we're able to see how changes can affect everything, from our digestion and hormones to our mood and even feelings. When winter comes around, these changes are more prominent than any other time of the year because they're the most extreme: the temperatures drop which makes us spend less time walking around, and therefore, causing us to stay inside and blob on the couch; there's less sun which creates a Vitamin D deficiency and causes major hormonal shifts; the seasonal foods aren't as exciting so we keep coming back to the same stews and soups; the motivational drop makes us skip the gym more times than we would during summer; and our immune system becomes at risk because everyone always seems to be sneezing, coughing, and sniffing around us.
No wonder that the acronym for this "disorder" is quite literally spelled SAD. SAD, or "seasonal affective disorder" is a known depressive disorder that has a seasonal pattern which shows up during autumn and goes well into the winter season, also known as the "winter blues." People start feeling tired, lethargic, and well, a little sad. Scientists speculate whether the lack of sun, and therefore, the lack of Vitamin D may be to blame as it contributes to the levels our happiness neurostransmitter, serotonin. It seems that 90% of our serotonin production is made right in our digestive tract, where the majority of our microbes and microbiome reside, meaning if our gut is experiencing an imbalance, it could have a much larger impact on our mood and energy levels as the studies exploring the gut-brain axis now show.
Recently, a study published in the scientific journal Frontiers found a link between exposure to UVB light and significant improvements in the gut microbiome diversity, which led to decreased inflammation in diseases such as IBS and MS. We already knew how Vitamin D is crucial in our overall health, and these new revelations show how all really is connected!
What Can We Do To Combat The Winter Blues?
First and foremost, get outside and get maximum daylight. It doesn't matter if it's 5 or 55 min of your day, but the moment your calendar turns to November, aim for going outside as often as you can. Take a morning stroll in your neighbourhood park, use your lunch break to stretch out your legs, dress warmly and take your early run outside; whatever you choose to do is better than staying inside under artifical lights and away from even the weakest sunrays.
Second, try to bring more colors and nutritious foods onto your plate as fresh and seasonal produce comes packed with vitamins and minerals which boost your energy, lower your stress response, and feed your microbiome that makes it easier to produce all necessary hormones for optimal balance and functions. Although you feel like grabbing that third helping of your Christmas cake will soothe your feelings and be the perfect comfort food, consuming it will only cause your energy levels to plummet even further. Stick to the rule: the more tired you get, the more fresh and vibrant nutrients you need.
Third, carve out time for self-care. Although this seems to be the word on everyone's lips, self-care means different things for different people, and while some may live for their evening journaling sessions, other many find that baking or drawing a bath works best for lifting up their spirits. Find something that relaxes you and brings a smile on your face and make it a priority to do it more often throghout the winter season; chances are, you'll be able to ignore how it hasn't stopped raining for five days in a row or how much layers you need to put on everytime you leave your house.
Fourth, increase your activity levels. Whether that means you finally join that running club or make it your New Year's resolution to start taking yoga classes, keeping the body moving is your best chance of staying healthy and boosting your immune system. Exercise keeps your blood pumping, muscles fired up, joints lubricated, energy thriving, and your body's natural detox function stimulated; which in turn, makes it more successful in fighting off seasonal infections and disease.
Fifth, don't give it all too much credit. You can't expect your mood to change overnight, but if you stay in that same mindset day after day after day, you're prolonging its effects and making it harder to turn it around. Bring positivity into your life and change the narrative from "It's awfully gray outside" to "I guess today is the perfect day to finally clean up my house" or turn "I hate this constant rain" to "What a perfect opportunity to buy those cute boots I always wanted." It all begins with a thought that turns into action that turns into emotion. Think about that and give it a try.
The connection between our gut and microbiome seems pretty strong, especially when it comes to dealing with the seasonal changes and winter blues. Although you're not alone and millions of people worldwide experience the same symptoms, turn it around this winter season and embrace all its gorgeous features- after all, who doesn't love snow and winter festivities? That already made you feel better, didn't it?