Winter Blues

Winter brings lot of fun, such as skiing, snowmobiling, and snowball fights. But it also brings cold temperatures and gray, dark days. That means more time indoors with less exposure to the sun, which can result in the winter blues.

Sometimes you may just feel slower, a little more tired, or down in the dumps. However, other times you may actually develop what is known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a depression that occurs in fall or winter and ends in spring or early summer. It is estimated that 4 to 6 percent of the population suffers from SAD, while 10 to 20 percent suffers from a milder form of winter blues.

What causes these down moods, and is there anything you can do to prevent them?

Why You May Have the Winter Blues

Researchers believe that the lack of exposure to sunlight is the main cause of SAD and milder cases of winter depression. People who live in northern latitudes where there is traditionally less sunlight in the winter months are more likely to experience SAD.

That’s because brain chemicals called neurotransmitters—such as serotonin—are sensitive to light. They fluctuate throughout the seasons, reaching their lowest point in December and January. This imbalance can trigger cravings for carbohydrates, which help the brain to release serotonin, but can also contribute to weight gain, headaches, and mood swings.

Winter also tends to disrupt the normal circadian rhythms that run your biological clock. Your sleep cycles may be disrupted, leaving you feeling lethargic and out of sorts. Lack of sunlight can mess with vitamin D levels as well, because the body uses UV rays to manufacture the nutrient. Low levels of vitamin D can also create symptoms such as fatigue, depression, and sleep problems.

Tips to Snap Out of It

Fortunately, you don't have to live four to five months every year feeling grouchy and miserable. There are a lot of things that can help prevent and treat the winter blues. Give them a try, and see if you don't feel better.

  • Watch what you eat. Carbohydrates may feel good for an hour or so, but they'll lead to a crash in energy. Stick to real energy foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, lean meats, and nuts.
  • Exercise. Moving your body stimulates feel-good endorphins in the brain and can lift your mood—while burning away those calories from the extra carbohydrates!
  • Try to get outside every day. Even on cloudy days, UV rays will stimulate your body to make vitamin D, and will fuel your brain as well.
  • Consider light therapy. This is the most recommended treatment for SAD. Simply work or sit near a device called a light therapy box, which gives off bright light that mimics natural outdoor light.
  • Get more vitamin D. Take a supplement, or better yet, eat more vitamin-D rich foods. Salmon, trout, halibut, herring, catfish, sardines, shrimp, soymilk, orange juice, and milk are packed with the vitamin.
  • Schedule events to look forward to. Plan to do something you enjoy. The anticipation will be enough to help keep your spirits up even before the event takes place.
  • Take up a fun winter sport. Instead of dreading the winter, try hockey, sledding, skiing, or ice skating to help you see the brighter side of the snowy months.
  • Get enough sleep. Lack of sleep causes all sorts of problems—including a craving for carbohydrates. Exercising and a regular bedtime routine will help you fall asleep. Talk with your doctor if you're having trouble sleeping.
  • Go out with friends. Friends, family, and co-workers can help lift your spirits. Social support is a huge deterrent to depression. Go to lunch with a friend. Write a letter to an old acquaintance, or pick up the phone. Even a short chat can be enough to help you feel happier.
  • Learn something new. Try a new hobby, craft, or take a class at your local community college. Shaking up your normal routine is a great way to bring your energy levels up.
  • Surround yourself with bright colors. Repaint one of the rooms in your house a brighter color. Shop for some colorful new clothes. Bring fresh flowers into your living space to brighten up your surroundings.
  • Check with your doctor. If you just can't break out of the blues this winter, be sure to check with your doctor. A few down days are normal, but months of depression can seriously affect your health.