Feeling Down? It May Be the Winter Blues

By: Jamie Harms, M.D.

It’s the coldest, darkest time of the year. It seems like spring will never come. For many people, this time of year brings feelings of sadness ‒ the “winter blues.”

Perhaps you recognize some of the symptoms in yourself: increased sleep; increased appetite, with cravings for starches and sugars; weight gain; emotional irritability; and a heavy feeling in your arms and legs. You may find yourself withdrawing from social activities or having difficulty concentrating.

What causes the winter blues?

Scientists think these symptoms result from a decrease in the activity of serotonin in the brain when days get shorter. Serotonin is a chemical that helps nerve cells in the brain communicate with each other. It is important for mood and alertness, and it helps control your appetite.

How to beat the winter blues

For most people, symptoms are mild, and they end when the days get longer. Here are things you can do to feel better:

  1. Get enough sleep. Sleep and moods are closely connected, and many of us skimp on sleep in our busy lives. Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep a night.
  2. Get some exercise. Exercise increases serotonin in the brain, so it can make you feel better physically and emotionally. Aim for 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week. Bundle up and take some walks outdoors in the daylight if you can.
  3. Get some sun. Exposure to daylight can help boost your mood. Bundle up and go outside whenever you can, even if it’s just for a few minutes.
  4. Pay attention to what you eat. Decrease carbohydrates and caffeine, which may make you feel better for a short time but can make moods worse overall. Choose lean meats, fruits and vegetables.
  5. Pay attention to your thoughts. It’s easy to develop habits of thinking and reacting to life events that just make you sad or worried. Practice looking for a few good things every day, even if they’re small.

Some people have more severe symptoms of depression in the wintertime. This is called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). If you have more than mild symptoms, or symptoms that last more than a few weeks, contact your doctor. Treatments such as light therapy, anti-depressant medication, and psychotherapy can be effective for wintertime depression.