As the days grow shorter and the chill of winter descends, taking care of ourselves becomes paramount. The shift in seasons brings unique challenges, particularly in colder climates like the UK, where the absence of abundant sunlight affects our overall well-being. From the vital role of Vitamin D in supporting our immune system to combatting Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and ensuring safety during darker hours, the winter months demand our attention and care in various aspects of health.
In the spring and summer months, most people will get enough vitamin D simply by being outside in the sunlight, but unfortunately in the UK this isn’t possible from October to March, even if you still spend many hours outdoors. This is because the lower angle of the sun doesn’t carry the UVB rays used by our skin synthesise this hormone. Tip: If your shadow is longer than you then the sun is too low and you’re unlikely to be getting vitamin D!
It’s quite difficult to get enough vitamin D from food alone (oily fish, dairy food, eggs and mushrooms are good sources) so there are supplements available. The recommended amount of vitamin D is 10 micrograms daily in order to avoid deficiency. The dosage of any supplement will be indicated on the pack so do check to ensure it’s enough. Vitamin D is important for supporting immune health and could make infections such as flu and covid-19 less severe. Additionally low levels are linked to increased risk of hypertension, heart failure, multiple sclerosis, depression, and stroke so it’s really important to ensure we’re not becoming deficient every winter.
Seasonal affective disorder is a common type of depression which is provoked by seasonal change, usually starting in autumn or winter. The exact causes are unknown but lack of sunlight and the subsequent effects on our internal body clock (circadian rhythm) are thought to play a role. Research indicates that successful treatment varies depending on the individual, so what helps one person may not help another. Some things found to improve symptoms include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), exercise – especially outdoors in daylight hours, light therapy such as a lightbox or dawn simulator, or in more serious cases medication which can be prescribed by a doctor.
With the evenings drawing in it’s important to stay safe in the dark and be increasingly aware of your surroundings. Sticking to well lit and well-used areas are sensible options, but also ensuring people know where you are and what time you expect to get home, and possibly switching on the location settings on your phone if you are concerned about your journey. If you feel unsafe or think you may be being followed don’t hesitate to call the police.
If you are regularly outside in the dark and need to be seen then wearing brighter clothing and reflective gear will ensure drivers and cyclists can see you clearly, especially
if you have children walking home from school as even in low afternoon light it can be difficult to be seen. If you drive, now is a great time to check that all your lights and indicators are working properly!
You may notice that your skin reacts to the colder months, perhaps feeling dry and itchy or triggering conditions such as eczema or psoriasis. A combination of cold air outside and warm air inside can disrupt the skin’s natural barrier, meaning that you may need to be more careful with what you expose it to.
Hydrating the skin on the outside with gentle moisturisers and from the inside by drinking enough water have both been shown to help maintain the barrier, with mineral oil and shea butter both having positive effects. Dermatologists recommend that antiaging ingredients such as glycolic acid and retinol are avoided or minimised during the winter, as these can further dry the skin. A simply physical barrier such as a scarf can prevent the most severe damage caused by cold winds so don’t forget to grab one before heading out!
Over a million people are affected by severe loneliness in the UK, increasing in the winter months as well as also over the recent years of pandemic concern and widespread change to social routines. Loneliness can affect physical as well as mental health, with links to sleep problems, depression, cognitive health and high blood pressure.
We can offer practical help by reaching out and asking people if they need a helping hand or simply sparking a friendly conversation. Perhaps those in poor health may benefit from help with shopping, posting letters, a walk together or just a cup of tea and a chat. For older people who are isolated there are charities such as Age UK and Independent Age which can organise volunteers to check in on people who are lonely and become a much-needed friend to talk to or attend social events with.