Original article published on BeBrainFit.com and is reprinted here in full.
If you feel down and lethargic, sleep longer, and crave carbs during the shortest days of the year, read our in-depth guide to beating winter blues.
If you feel sad and lethargic during the shortest days of the year, you may have winter blues. Typical signs of winter blues include craving carbohydrates, sleeping more than usual, and having little motivation. Experts on the subject warn that most doctors aren’t well informed about this problem, so it may be up to you to figure out how to overcome your winter blues on your own. (1)
Symptoms of Winter Blues
As you’d expect, winter blues peak in January and February in the northern hemisphere, July and August in the southern hemisphere. The further you live from the equator, the greater your risk. If you live in the northern US, Canada, or Europe, you’re eight times more likely to experience winter blues than those who live in warm and sunny Florida or Mexico. (2) But surprisingly it can occur anywhere — some people feel blue during the winter in southern California! (3)
Women are two to three times more likely to feel depressed in the winter than men. (4)
If you tend to feel let down after the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year holidays, you may be susceptible to winter blues.
Besides feeling sad, here are some typical symptoms of winter blues: (5)
Your energy is low and you sleep more than usual.You feel apathetic, unmotivated, and bored.You are less interested in friends and activities you usually enjoy.You feel irritable, moody, and your relationships suffer.You overeat, gain weight, and especially have cravings for carbohydrates.
Causes of Winter Blues
There is no medical consensus as to what causes winter blues. There are several theories and most of them revolve around one key factor, lack of daylight. Here are a few mechanisms that might explain how lack of light can affect your mood.
Abnormal Neurotransmitter Levels
The main theory is that a lack of sunlight affects the workings of the hypothalamus which in turn affects the formation of neurotransmitters, chemicals that brain cells use to communicate with each other. (6) People experiencing winter depression typically have low levels of serotonin and high levels of melatonin. (7) Serotonin is considered the “happiness molecule” that plays an important role in mood, learning, memory, appetite regulation, and sleep. Most antidepressants are designed to work by raising serotonin levels. Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone that helps you fall asleep at night by making you feel tired.
Your brain’s pineal gland produces melatonin every night when it starts to get dark.
During the winter, people with winter blues produce higher than normal amounts of melatonin. They also tend to have lower levels of dopamine and norepinephrine. (8)
Both of these neurotransmitters are essential for making you feel motivated, energetic, and interested in life.
Circadian Rhythm Dysfunction
Another theory is that winter blues are due to a disruption of the normal circadian rhythm. (9) One study that followed patients with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), an extreme form of winter blues, concluded that this disorder is similar to jet lag.
It’s thought that people with SAD release melatonin too early or for too long a period during the winter, contributing to their lethargy. (10)
Vitamin D Deficiency
Vitamin D is an essential nutrient that’s created when your skin is exposed to sunlight.
But this reaction takes place only when the UV index, the measure of the sun’s radiation reaching the earth, is higher than 3 (on a scale from 0 to 11+). (11) For much of North America and Europe, this happens only during the summer months which may explain why an estimated 77% of Americans have subpar levels of vitamin D. (12) Low vitamin D may be responsible for the depression and anxiety some people experience during the winter months. (13) The only way to know how low your vitamin D stores are and how much you need to get them back to normal is to get your vitamin D level tested.
Winter Blues Could Be in Your Genes
It’s thought that there is a genetic component to seasonal blues since it often runs in families, especially those with a history of depression or substance abuse. (14)
Interestingly, some researchers believe that winter depression might be a survival mechanism that helped our ancestors survive harsh winters. Just as bears, chipmunks, and hedgehogs hibernate in the winter, it’s possible that some of us have an inherent tendency to semi-hibernate during the darkest months to conserve energy. (15)
Unfortunately, the demands of modern life do not allow you to spend winter curled up in bed.
There’s a subcategory of winter blues known as post-holiday depression. The holidays are fraught with pitfalls that can leave you feeling down. From Thanksgiving to New Year’s, many people eat badly, drink too much, sleep too little, and let their normal exercise routine slide. You may be stressed about money since society almost demands that you “spend, spend, spend” during the holidays. In fact, the economy depends on our overspending since nearly 20% of retail purchases are made during the holidays. (16)
It’s not unusual for the holidays to bring unresolved family issues to the surface.
The holidays act like a magnifying glass, exaggerating the dysfunctions that most families have. Getting family members together under one roof is often an unavoidable opportunity to rekindle past insecurities, irritations, and problems. And once the holiday season is over, you have time to reflect on how badly they (or you) behaved. You may despair over the reasons they act like they do and wonder why your family can’t be “normal.” If you’ve recently experienced a major life stressor such as an illness or the loss or separation of a loved one, you’ll be more prone to post-holiday blues.
Even happy life changes such as marriage, a new baby, or retirement are stressful in their own ways and the holidays can amplify normal feelings of anxiety, stress, or depression. (17) It’s not hard to see how getting through the holidays can take a toll on your mental well-being.
How to Beat Winter Blues
Fortunately, winter blues will subside on its own with the warmer, brighter days of spring. But there’s no reason you have to wait until then to feel better. Here’s a look at some proven remedies that can have you feeling happier and more energetic fast.
1. Eat a Serotonin-Boosting Diet
If you’ve got winter blues, you may find yourself craving and eating more sugar and refined carbohydrates than usual. A healthy diet should emphasize vegetables, fruit, protein sources, and healthy fats, but you don’t have to completely give up eating carbohydrates. In fact, there is a dietary “trick” that raises levels of mood-boosting serotonin by strategically eating healthy carbohydrates unaccompanied by protein.
2. Take the Right Supplements
There’s a number of supplements that can help you overcome your winter doldrums.
Fish oil may be the #1 supplement for treating winter depression. Iceland is one of the northernmost countries in the world, yet has one of the lowest rates of a serious form of seasonal depression known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
What’s their secret? It’s believed to be their huge consumption of fish — 247 pounds per person per year. (18) It wouldn’t be hard to eat that much fish in Iceland. (Their fish is excellent since it’s freshly caught in clean, cold water.) However, depending on the quality of fish where you live, eating that much could be a challenge. Unless you are willing to regularly eat cold-water, fatty fish, it’s recommended that you take a fish oil supplement.
Unless you live in an area where large areas of your skin get some sun exposure all year long, you almost certainly are not getting the vitamin D you need to keep up a positive mood during the winter. When healthy adults with winter blues were given 10 to 20 mcg (400 to 800 IU) of vitamin D, their mood improved considerably. (19)
Tryptophan is an amino acid that’s the precursor of the happiness brain chemical serotonin. Research has found tryptophan to be as effective for depression as antidepressant drugs. (20) One of the most common treatments for seasonal depression is light therapy (which we’ll discuss shortly). When used together, tryptophan and light therapy offer significant relief of depression even when light therapy alone has not helped. (21)
St. John’s wort
St. John’s wort is a popular remedy for depression, but it’s not our top pick since it has many side effects and interactions. However, it is specifically helpful for winter blues so if nothing else has helped, you may want to give it a try. (22)
3. Practice Meditation
There are many excellent reasons to meditate and overcoming winter blues is one of them. Dr. Norman Rosenthal is the psychiatrist who pioneered seasonal affective disorder research. He was the first to describe winter depression, to use the term seasonal affective disorder, and to recommend the use of light therapy for its treatment.
In the fourth edition of his landmark book Winter Blues, Fourth Edition: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder, Rosenthal devotes an entire new chapter to the importance of meditation for alleviating winter blues.
4. Get Cozy
Take a cue from Scandinavians who contend with long, bleak winters. They don’t look at winter as something to be endured. They embrace winter, and one of the ways they do this is by getting cozy. (23) The Danish call it hygge (pronounced hooga).
Hygge is making its way into other cultures. Oxford Dictionary put hygge on their 2016 “word of the year” list. The Danes use the winter as a time to slow down and enjoy being at home, reflecting, and spending quality time with friends and loved ones. By changing your mindset to embrace, rather than resist, winter, you too can enjoy this time of year more.
5. Get Some Physical Exercise
But don’t take the idea of spending time curled up in front of the fire too far. It’s important to stay physically active. In fact, exercise is one of the most important things you can do to stay happy, not just during the winter, but all year long. So get some physical exercise, preferably outdoors. Invest in warm winter clothing so you’ll be relatively comfortable.
Outdoor apparel in bright, cheerful colors can provide a small additional mood lift.
It’s not always easy or pleasant to exercise in inclement weather, but even a brief walk can increase feel-good brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and endorphins. (24) If exercise outdoors is not possible, exercise indoors. Move your yoga mat or treadmill to a nearby window to get more daylight, if you can.
6. Plan Something to Look Forward To
Perhaps the easiest and most effective way to lift yourself out of your funk is to plan something to look forward to. Call an old friend for lunch, get tickets to a show or concert, or a plan a weekend getaway. If you’ve always wanted to try a particular hobby, now is an excellent time to get started.
It turns out that purposeful activities like knitting, sewing, woodworking, arts and crafts, and home repairs can focus your mind to improve mental well-being. (25) One study found that over 80% of knitters with depression reported feeling happier when they knitted due to an increase in their dopamine levels. (26) The heart of winter is an excellent time to build anticipation by making long-range plans to look forward to, as well.
Oddly, it’s been found that people who travel actually get a greater boost of happiness from the anticipation of the trip than from the trip itself. (27) So if you have to wait until spring or summer to actually take your trip, you’ll still get a happiness boost now just thinking about your trip. And you don’t have to travel to create anticipation.
You can use this time to plan any experience you look forward to, and some of them are free. One of my favorite winter ways to build anticipation is poring through gardening catalogs to plan my spring garden.
7. Cross an Item Off Your “To-Do” List
Is there a project or task you’ve been putting off? First, add it to your to-do list. Don’t worry about the size of the task. Even a task as small as clearing out your junk drawer qualifies. Then after you’ve done it, cross it off your list. Accomplishing any goal, be it big or small, provides a burst of dopamine, the brain chemical behind motivation. Low dopamine is linked to apathy, boredom, and general lack of zest for life — all common signs of winter blues.
Post-Holiday Depression Coping Strategies
Here are a few other coping strategies when your blues are related to the holidays.
8. Express Gratitude
Get beyond the superficialities and consumerism of the holiday season and reflect on your beliefs as to what the holidays are really about. Doing for others and being grateful is emphasized by all the great religious traditions and spiritual practices.
Expressing gratitude creates a surge of feel-good brain chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. According to gratitude expert Dr. Robert Emmons, gratitude may work by reducing underlying negative emotions such as regret, envy, frustration, and resentment. (28) Several studies show that being grateful reduces the risk of depression. (29) There is no better time to start a practice of gratitude than after the holidays.
A common way of developing a habit of gratitude is by journaling, but I find sharing those grateful thoughts with others even better. Get some note cards, put pen to paper and write actual thank-you notes for any gift or act of kindness or hospitality you received during the holidays.
If you doubt the value of writing notes versus sending emails, I highly recommend reading A Simple Act of Gratitude: How Learning to Say Thank You Changed My Life by former lawyer and judge John Kralik. He decided to start writing thank-you notes when his life was at an all-time low. This book chronicles the profound and surprising ways this simple habit changed his life and touched the lives of those he thanked.
9. Stop Idealizing the Holidays
Stop comparing this past holiday to the idealized holidays of your childhood, the movies, or what you imagine others are experiencing. The actual holidays are short, only a few days out of the year. Don’t let what they “should” have been color your feelings after they’re over. If you have trouble letting go, one of the best ways to keep your mind focused on the present is with meditation. If you normally meditate but stopped during the holidays, make it a point to pick it up again.
10. Clean Up Your Diet
For many of us in the US, the carb fest starts on Halloween and continues through New Year’s Day. After a 3-month-long sugar binge, it becomes tough to stop. Quitting sugar and refined carbohydrates is not easy and, in fact, the more you eat, the more addictive they become. There’s evidence that white sugar is as addictive as cocaine and heroin! (30)
Eating sugar contributes to mood swings, irritability, and brain fog. Replace unhealthy processed foods with plenty of vegetables, high-quality protein, and mood-boosting healthy fats like those in nuts, avocados, fatty fish, and coconut in all its forms. Give yourself permission to get rid of any remaining holiday cookies. If you can’t bring yourself to toss them, give them away or at least stick them in the freezer.
11. Cut Yourself Some Slack
Christmas and other holidays that occur during the cold and darker days of winter are challenging for almost everyone. This is nothing new. Civilizations have celebrated the end of shorter days and the return of longer daylight hours for thousands of years.
Imagine how much harder it probably was to endure long nights before artificial lighting came along!
Be patient with yourself and know that, just as surely as spring follows winter, your post-holiday blues will fade with the change of the seasons. And speaking of cutting yourself some slack … Save yourself some heartache and skip making any New Year’s resolutions. This is not the time to heap on unrealistic expectations — only 8% of those who make resolutions achieve their goals. (31) This doesn’t mean you should not take steps towards improving your health, but there is no point setting yourself up for failure when you’re already feeling down.
Serious Treatments for Winter Depression
Winter blues by definition will subside by spring, but, understandably, you want relief now. So if you’ve tried the lifestyle changes above, but still aren’t feeling like your usual self, here are three medically proven treatments that can help.
12. Light Therapy for Winter Blues
By far the most popular, well studied, and successful treatment for winter blues is the therapeutic use of light. Light therapy involves sitting close to a light box for 30 minutes a day, usually shortly after waking up.
Using a light therapy box.
These boxes generally provide 10,000 lux (a measure of light intensity) which is about 100 times brighter than typical indoor lighting, but only 1/5 the brightness of a sunny day. (32) During your session your eyes must be open, so you can use this time to read, eat, chat on the phone, or catch up on work. People with winter depression often have an abnormally high level of melatonin, but light therapy can bring it down to normal.
The Center for Environmental Therapeutics (CET) is a nonprofit organization that studies the interaction of light and circadian rhythms. They recommend using white light rather than colored or full spectrum light since these seem to offer no additional therapeutic value for winter depression. If you choose a fluorescent lamp, pick one with a screen that filters out UV rays which can harm your eyes. If you are working with a health care professional, follow their instructions on how long and when to use your light box.
But if you are attempting this on your own, CET has put together a self-assessment questionnaire to help you determine your circadian rhythm type and the optimal time of day for your light therapy sessions. Dr. Michael Terman, one of the founders of CET, reports that with the proper timing and dosing of light therapy, depression can start to lift in as little as three days. (33)
Note: Do not self-prescribe light therapy if you have bipolar disorder since it can trigger mania.
13. Wake Up with a Dawn Simulator
A little-known remedy that works much like light box therapy is to wake up with a dawn simulator.A dawn simulator is basically an alarm clock that works by gently waking you with light rather than sound.It will mimic natural sunrise by starting with a very low light that gradually brightens over 30 to 45 minutes. (34) Unfortunately, a substantial number of people who try using a light box fail to stick with it. (35) But using a dawn simulator is much easier since your “session” is over by the time you get out of bed! Research shows that using a dawn simulator not only improves well-being and mood, but also increases mental performance. (36)
14. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Winter Depression
Light therapy is about 80% successful when it’s tailored to the individual’s sleep-wake cycle. (37) But if light therapy hasn’t worked for you, consider giving cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) a try. Light therapy can be useful for a fast mood boost, but CBT, also known as “talk therapy,” seems to be more effective in the long run. (38) During therapy, you’ll learn how to overcome your tendency to hibernate and challenge negative thought patterns that contribute to your seasonal malaise. (39)
How to Tell Winter Blues from Seasonal Affective Disorder
Some people experience an extreme type of winter blues known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. The American Psychiatric Association classifies seasonal affective disorder as a subtype of major depression and its symptoms are similar to those of general depression. (40) How do you know that you’ve crossed the line between winter blues and seasonal affective disorder?
Besides feeling blue during the winter, other symptoms of SAD include:
increased anxiety, lack of energy, sleep problems, carbohydrate cravings and subsequent weight gain, lack of motivation, poor concentration, irritability, increased use of addictive substances, reduced libido, increased symptoms of PMS, increased social isolation, strained relationships, and lowered immunity.
To meet the medical criteria for SAD, you must experience these symptoms seasonally for two years. (41) And, of course, if your symptoms persist beyond winter, your blues would no longer be considered a seasonal condition and you may have another form of depression. It may then be time to consult with a health care professional.
Overcoming Winter Blues: Take the Next Step
Winter blues is a type of depression that occurs during the shortest, coldest, and darkest days of the year, but dissipates come spring. Its causes are not completely understood, but it’s generally thought to be a biochemical result of lack of daylight.
A variety of lifestyle modifications such as eating a healthy diet, taking the right supplements, getting physical exercise, and practicing meditation have proven to be very effective. If lifestyle changes don’t bring the relief you seek, try one of the approved medical treatments — light box therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, or the use of a dawn simulator.
Recommended: If you feel that you can benefit from professional therapy, BetterHelp online counseling offers quality mental health counseling on your terms — it’s professional, effective, affordable, convenient, and private.
FCSH also provides counseling. Contact Pauline Runge at 920-904-3370 for a private consultation.
For ways to meditate see our articles or attend one of our meditation classes.