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Winter Blues: Navigating Circadian Rhythms for Better Mood and Energy

late winter sunset with purple, pink and yellow tones

I’ve been talking about this a lot recently with clients and friends as I know so many of you, like myself can feel a little different this time of year. Our mood can dip, we can be less likely to want to do things in the evening and getting out of bed in the morning can be that bit more difficult.

As much as I enjoy the cosy Winter evenings I’m definitely a Summer person. There’s something so powerful about waking up with natural light and feeling sunshine on my skin. It instantly makes me feel better and of course, there’s good scientific reason for all of this.

Working against our natural body clock can lead to feelings of lethargy, fatigue, low mood and a lack of motivation.

Our circadian rhythm or our “body clock” has a massive impact on how we feel. It regulates various biological processes in the body. The body’s circadian rhythm works on a 24-hour cycle and is influenced by lots of factors, but mainly light and darkness.

Woman tired sitting in bed looking at mobile phone screen
Exposure to artificial light in the evening disrupts our circadian rhythm. Source: Canva

Nowadays, too little light in the dark mornings and too much artificial light in the evening from phones and screens is the norm for many people. This works against our natural circadian rhythm and is bad news for our health and wellness in general.

Working against our natural body clock can lead to feelings of lethargy, fatigue, low mood and a lack of motivation. There have been so many studies carried out on night shift workers and the adverse health outcomes associated with this disrupted circadian rhythm. The results have shown an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, metabolic disorders such as type 2 diabetes and mood disturbances.

But there’s much we can do ourselves to help support and work with our natural rhythms to help unlock a myriad of health benefits, from improved sleep quality and mood stability to enhanced metabolic function and overall well-being.

So let's delve into the ways we can actively work with our natural rhythm.

Embracing Natural Light in the morning

The Power of Sunlight on our Circadian Rhythm

Woman waking and stretching while natural light floods through
Natural light in the morning boosts mood and regulates your circadian rhythm. Source: Canva
Get daylight in any way that you can. Don’t worry if it’s a grey, dull day, you will still be getting some light exposure

Staring our day with exposure to light is crucial. It helps reset our internal clock, signalling the start of the day and boosting alertness. When we wake up early in the morning, the sleep hormone is still high and can take about 45 minutes to an hour for it to go down and for the ‘wake’ hormone cortisol to go up. Think of this as the changing of the guards, melatonin goes off shift and cortisol comes in.

At this time of year, turn on your bedside light on as soon as your alarm goes off. Get daylight in any way that you can. Don’t worry if it’s a grey, dull day, you will still be getting some light exposure. Even sitting by a window on the train or bus, having your coffee or your breakfast by a window or ideally getting outside and letting sunshine in through your eyes are all great forms of exposure to natural light.

Light is quantified in units of lux. Full sunlight gives us about 30,000 lux, going outside on a cloudy days gives us around 10,000 lux, which is the optimum daily exposure. Being inside in an artificially lit room all day we would be unlikely to get any more than 500 lux.

Some people, particularly those with SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) do really well with a light therapy lamp which mimics natural sunlight. You can buy these for about €30 or €40.

Connecting with Nature

Forest path with fallen leaves and bare trees
Outdoor activities in the morning enhances the advantages of natural light exposure. Source: Ciara Ryan Nutrition

Incorporating outdoor activities or simply spending time in nature during the morning amplifies the benefits of natural light exposure. This connection with the environment further aligns our body clock with the day-night cycle. Take that walk at lunchtime or if you can at all, walk to work or even part of the way to work.

I have a client who works as a hairdresser in a windowless building. As you may well know hairdressers often don’t take proper breaks never mind get outside during the day. This particular client drove to and from work daily parking in an underground carpark so her light exposure was minimal.

We came up with an action plan to try to mitigate this which involved:

  1. Parking a bit away from work and walking the final 10 to 15 minutes a few days of the week

  2. Taking 5 to 10 minutes outside at the very least once a day and

  3. Scheduling in and committing to a walk in nature at the weekend.

This made a huge difference to her moods and how she was feeling.

Remember that light affects our production of the mood and sleep neurotransmitters like serotonin and melatonin. It’s a natural anti-depressant and light in the daylight hours supports better sleep at night.

I absolutely love sitting outside early in the morning in the later Spring, Summer and early Autumn mornings with my coffee and just absorbing the light. I throw my hooded blanket on me when it’s cold and I work really hard not to bring my phone outside with me! (Never forget, small actions like these can have a huge impact).

Evening Time: Embracing Dim Lights and Winding Down

The Impact of Artificial Lighting

In the evening, exposure to bright artificial lights can disrupt the body's natural production of melatonin, a hormone crucial for sleep. If our brain is stimulated by light in the evening then it’s telling our body to stay awake, exactly when our brain is trying to signal us to wind down and get ready for sleep.

Dim Lights and Relaxation

Dimmed bedroom lamp with clock and comfortable bedding
Your evening routine can help signal the body that it's time to unwind and relax. Source: Canva
At the very least, put all of your devices on night mode to reduce the glare of the blue light. It’s this blue light that blocks your melatonin production.

Dimming lights as the evening progresses signals to our bodies that it's time to wind down. Creating a relaxing environment by reducing screen time and engaging in calming activities aids in preparing for a restful sleep. I’m obsessed with going around and turning down or off lights in the evening at home. The family think I’m mad, they don’t realise how much it helps them.

Try not to watch anything overly stimulating on the TV and really work on reducing screen time, as hard as I know that is. At the very least, put all of your devices on night mode to reduce the glare of the blue light. It’s this blue light that blocks your melatonin production. Better still, leave your phone/tablet outside the room. And before you say it, get yourself an old fashioned alarm clock. (Again, small actions, huge impact)!

woman sitting in bed smiling with hot drink reading a book
Reading bed helps promote relaxation before sleep. Source: Canva

Even small switches like reading a book instead of looking at your phone in bed will help enormously. If you have night lights on in your room for children/baby or if street lamps outside are giving light into your room (and especially if you do night shifts) be sure to get black out blinds and/or wear an eye mask.

To sum things up:

  • Try to keep to a consistent routine, the body clock responds well to this

  • Ensure you get more light in the morning and don’t eat until your body feels ready to eat (more on this in another blog)

  • Dim lights in the evening, really work to minimise screens, put all devices on night mode and keep your bedroom as dark as possible

  • Finish eating 2 to 3 hours before bed.

In the hustle and bustle of modern life, it’s easy to underestimate the profound impact our daily routines have on our overall well-being. I’m really conscious of trying my best to work with the natural ebb and flow of each day, prioritising sleep, and adopting healthy lifestyle habits to support my circadian rhythm and promote balance each day. And I really feel it’s working and making a difference for me this Winter.

I invite you to think about the small daily routines that, with little tweaks can help make a difference to your internal clock, helping to improve mood stability, cognitive function and overall health. What changes will you make?

If you are interested in starting your journey to wellness in 2024 and would like support from Ciara Ryan Nutrition please get in touch and we can set up a free no obligation health review.


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