It’s winter. You feel sad and listless, sleep longer, and crave carbs. You may have the winter blues. Learn how to fix this type of seasonal depression.
If you feel sad and lethargic during the shortest days of the year, you may have the 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)
In this article, you’ll find a comprehensive look at the symptoms and causes of the winter blues and effective treatments for it.
Just as important, you’ll learn how to distinguish it from its more serious counterpart, seasonal affective disorder.
Signs You’ve Got the Winter Blues
As you’d expect, the 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 in 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 (in the north), it can trigger winter blues.
Besides feeling sad, here are some typical signs you’ve got the winter blues: (5)
- Your energy is low and you sleep more than usual.
- You feel apathetic, unmotivated, bored, and 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.
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Causes of Winter Blues
There is no medical consensus on the causes of 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.
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Antidepressants usually work by raising serotonin levels.
Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone that helps you fall asleep at night by making you feel tired.
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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.
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Circadian Rhythm Dysfunction
Another theory is that the 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 seasonal affective 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)
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For much of North America and Europe, this happens only during the summer months which is 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)
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 a genetic tendency to semi-hibernate during the darkest months to conserve energy. (15)
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Tune Up Your Winter Lifestyle
Fortunately, the winter blues will subside on their 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 the winter doldrums, 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.
You can learn more about this workaround in our article on serotonin foods.
2. Take the Right Supplements
Here’s a look at the top supplements for overcoming seasonal depression.
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).
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What’s their secret?
It’s believed to be their huge consumption of fish — 247 pounds per person per year. (16)
It wouldn’t be hard to eat that much fish in Iceland.
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(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 eat a lot of fish, take a fish oil supplement instead.
Unless you live in an area where large areas of your skin get 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.
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When healthy adults with winter blues were given 400 to 800 International Units (IU) of vitamin D, their mood improved considerably. (17)
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. (18)
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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. (19)
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Other Mood-Boosting Natural Remedies
There are many natural substances that fight depression.
Herbal Remedies for Depression: Viable Alternative to Antidepressants
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.
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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 must endure long, bleak winters.
They don’t look at the winter as something to be endured or gotten through.
One of the ways they embrace winter is by getting cozy. (22)
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.
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5. Stay Active
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.
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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 15-minute walk can increase feel-good brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and endorphins. (23)
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. Create Anticipation
The heart of winter is an excellent time to plan something to look forward to.
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. (24)
So if you have to wait until spring or summer to actually take your trip, you’ll still get a happiness boost now from the anticipation.
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 favorites 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 the winter blues.
Serious Treatments for Winter Blues
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.
8. 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.
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. (25)
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.
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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 offer no additional therapeutic value.
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. (26)
NOTE: Do not self-prescribe light therapy if you have bipolar disorder since it can trigger mania.
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9. 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. (27)
Unfortunately, few people stick with using a light box.
One study found that only 27% keep up their light therapy for more than one winter. (28)
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. (29)
10. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Winter Depression
Light therapy is about 80% successful when it’s tailored to the individual’s sleep-wake cycle. (30)
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. (31)
During therapy, you’ll learn how to overcome your tendency to hibernate and challenge negative thought patterns that contribute to your seasonal malaise. (32)
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. (33)
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Besides feeling blue during the winter, other symptoms of SAD include: (34)
- increased anxiety
- lack of energy
- sleep problems
- carbohydrate cravings and subsequent weight gain
- lack of motivation
- poor concentration
- increased use of addictive substances
- reduced libido
- increased symptoms of PMS
- increased social isolation
- strained relationships
- lowered immunity
To meet the medical criteria for SAD, you must experience these symptoms seasonally for two years. (35)
And, of course, if your symptoms persist beyond winter, your blues would no longer be considered a seasonal condition.
It may then be time to consult with a health care professional.
Overcoming the Winter Blues: The Bottom Line
The winter blues is a type of depression that occurs during the shortest, coldest, and darkest days of the year and then dissipates come spring.
Its causes are not completely understood, but 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 quite effective.
Some people have an extreme form of winter blues known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Light box therapy, the “gold standard” treatment for seasonal blues, has a high success rate.
Cognitive behavioral therapy may be the most effective long-term treatment of all, especially if your winter blues meets the criteria of SAD.