Feeling the winter blues? Here are some reasons why
With winter comes cold weather, a reduction in sunlight, and the potential to feel a bit down. The winter blues are common and can cause tiredness and a shift in mood, though they don't normally hinder your ability to find enjoyment in life. Winter blues normally clear up on their own or can be aided by getting more exposure to daylight, vitamin D supplements, or by adding certain foods such as omega-3 fatty acids and protein to your diet.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is much more than winter blues, it is a form of depression related to the change in seasons and the shortening of daylight hours. It occurs in areas of the world where there is less sunlight during specific seasons. This lack of sunlight can throw circadian rhythms—which influence our sleep-wake cycle—out of whack, and cause deficiencies in certain vitamins and hormones in the brain such as serotonin, which helps to regulate mood.
SAD is much more prevalent in northern latitudes of the world than southern areas. It usually occurs during the late fall and winter months. Symptoms include changes in mood, fatigue, depression, feelings of hopelessness, and social withdrawal. The link between seasonal depression and light was first identified by National Institutes of Health researchers in the early 1980s. Treatment includes behavioral changes such as increasing access to daylight or clinical approaches such as light therapy (phototherapy), talk therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy, and medications such as certain antidepressants.
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Circadian rhythms are not aligned
The body’s circadian rhythm, or internal clock, controls the sleep-wake cycle. With the changing of seasons and the decrease in sunlight that accompanies winter, circadian rhythms can be thrown out of whack. This can impact sleep, and that can affect your overall mood and mental health. According to Harvard Health, not only do circadian tendencies determine your sleep cycle—whether you are a night owl or a morning person—but they can also impact a person’s “choice of emotional coping skills, such as assertiveness or rationalization, and their predisposition to psychological disorders.” When irregular circadian rhythms interfere with one’s sleep and overall ability to function, it can also lead to mood disorders and seasonal affective disorder.
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Unbalanced serotonin levels
Serotonin is a chemical in the brain and a key hormone that influences mood and helps with mood stabilization. It also plays a role in sleep and digestion. When serotonin levels drop or are unbalanced, it can impact our mood and bring on the blues, trigger depression, and even cause SAD. Both exercise and exposure to bright light can help balance and increase serotonin levels in the winter months.
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Lack of vitamin D
Sunlight stimulates the production of vitamin D, which can mean a deficiency of the essential micronutrient during winter’s shorter days and diminished sunlight.
Vitamin D plays a major role in warding off depression and regulating mood and is thought to promote serotonin activity. A vitamin D deficiency can impair brain health and cognitive functioning and can affect mood and behavior. Adding a vitamin D supplement can help with depression and mood regulation, but it can take up to three or four months to see the benefit. Age can also impact how much vitamin D your body produces.
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Too much melatonin during the day, not enough at night
While your body often produces too little of certain vital vitamins and hormones, like serotonin, during the winter months, it can also produce too much of others. In the winter, producing too much melatonin during the day can lead to sluggishness and low energy levels. Melatonin is a hormone made by the pineal gland that is produced in response to darkness, and it can impact sleep. With the shorter days during the winter months, however, the body often produces too much melatonin during the day and not enough melatonin during the evening, causing sadness and depression. Opening your curtains or blinds to let in more daylight, especially early in the morning, can help regulate melatonin levels, resulting in 11% lower anxiety and 9% lower stress levels.
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Less physical activity
During the winter months, many people find they get less physical activity and exercise due to the cold, snowy, and icy weather conditions. Exercise can increase endorphins and serotonin levels in the brain, which help to improve one’s overall well-being and mood. Lack of physical activity can decrease the production of these feel-good chemicals in the brain. Exercise is an effective tool in treating both the winter blues and seasonal affective disorder. To improve mood, taking a brisk walk on a sunny winter day or joining a local gym can be a good way to chase away the winter blues.