For many, the cold winter weather--with its endless, dreary days and forecasts of impending blizzards--is not the most uplifting, especially towards the end of winter, when we feel we should be seeing daffodils rather than snow. Concomitant with gloomy forecasts is a similar state of mind known as the "winter blues." Research says this mood change is not merely in our heads. In fact, numerous studies have documented the overall feeling of malaise, which has a name: seasonal affective disorder, or most appropriately SAD for short.
MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Tara Swart, neuroscientist, leadership coach, medical doctor and executive advisor, says that SAD is thought to be caused by the way our bodies respond to daylight. “Melatonin, the hormone that helps regulate our sleep, is released by the pineal gland in the brain into the bloodstream. Because this gland is activated by darkness, in shorter daylight hours in the winter, higher levels of melatonin are produced, causing lethargy and feelings of low energy.” Swart explains the production of serotonin--a hormone responsible for maintaining mood balance--can also decrease because of a lack of sunlight, which can lead to feelings of depression and negatively affecting our sleep and appetite.
Does winter weather affect productivity?
While the changing seasons can have a physical impact on our brain, to what extent is our cognitive function and performance level affected by the colder weather? Swart says opinions differ. While some studies show our brain activity is reduced in the colder months and can lead to sluggishness, other studies show that although brain activity is reduced, our performance levels remain the same--or that the brain is actually more efficient in the winter. Those who believe brain activity is reduced during the winter think shorter days may be the reason. Conversely, research has also shown that our attention span increases during the summer when days are longer.
Whether our brains change during the winter or not, the colder weather makes many of us feel lethargic. Dr. Swart has some practical ways to combat this lagging energy level while improving mental resilience and productivity:
- Get a good night's sleep. That means seven to nine hours a night, as well as a consistent routine at bedtime and when waking up. In addition, turn off electronics at least an hour before bedtime. The screen's blue light can keep the brain active by inhibiting melatonin secretion.
- Eat the right foods to fuel your brain. While carbohydrates might be the comfort food we crave in the colder months, more protein--salmon, eggs, nuts--will boost the brain's executive functions like solving complex problems and thinking flexibly.
- Get some fresh air and exercise to help increase energy levels.
- Stay socially active with friends and family. Oxytocin, the hormone that is released into the bloodstream when we bond, makes the part of the brain that is associated with social action more active, and this helps mood.
Learn more about how the brain can affect our daily activities, work productivity, and even leadership skills in these MIT Sloan Executive Education courses taught by Dr. Swart: Neuroscience for Leadership and Applied Neuroscience: Unleashing Brain Power for You and Your People.
This post was adapted from an article by Dr. Tara Swart on WeAreTheCity.com.