Winter Depression: Separating Facts From Fiction
How much do you actually know about winter depression?
Posted Jan 09, 2020
Call it winter blues or darkness doldrums, there is an outbreak of something right about now that makes us want to curl up and hibernate. But it’s not the cold weather, rain or snow that’s doing it. It’s the darkness and there are three more months of it to go!
So, let’s see how much you know about staying sunny when it's dark:
True or false: Most people are not affected by shorter days.
False: According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 92% of the population reports some sort of winter blues. The effects of seasonal depression are even greater if you are going through a stressful experience like job hunting, relationship problems or infertility1.
Here’s how it works: Lower levels of light mean lower blood pressure, which makes us sleepy, lower blood sugar, which makes us sleepy, slower brain waves, which makes us sleepy and more carb consumption—which make us sleepy.
But sleeping late won’t help the dark-days doldrums. Research says, during the winter we actually need to get up a little earlier in the morning to stretch our day if we want to be alert, have a positive mood and cut back on that carb cravings1.
How do you combat this? Set your alarm clock to catch the early morning light and try to walk outside, even if it’s a cloudy winter day. Sunlight exposure for an hour or more after dawn can help you reset your circadian rhythm.
True or False: Winter darkness can affect a female’s hormone cycles.
Since our hormones are controlled by our master clock, which is affected by sunshine changes, this statement is true. Our heart rate, blood pressure, appetite, sleep cycles, and digestion are all affected, and so is our reproductive system2. In fact, one study found a decrease in both ovulation frequency and follicle-stimulating hormone in the fall and winter and a slight increase in the menstrual cycle. The study looked at temperature, atmospheric pressure, moon phase and night light, but none were significant—just sunlight3.
But if you are going through fertility treatment, like IVF, don’t worry. The hormonal changes due to the lack of sunlight are wiped out because the ovarian and endometrial hormones are controlled pharmaceutically (with medications that are part of the IVF journey) and not by your master clock4.
However, those same pharmaceutical hormones can make coping with winter blues more difficult because they can lower your mood and increase feelings of anxiety. At the same time, winter blues can make coping with the emotional side of fertility treatment more difficult.
How do you combat this? Try to avoid caffeine, which can make you more anxious and refined sugar which can bounce your energy levels. If you can, try to exercise to burn the extra adrenaline and increase endorphins. Just make sure to consult with your doctor first.
True or false: Light Therapy is only for serious winter depression.
False. While there’s a difference in the severity between the winter blues and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), light therapy can help with:
- Low energy
- Sleep disturbance
- Carb craving, overeating and weight gain
- Social isolation (“hibernating”)
This kind of phototherapy involves morning exposure to high-intensity therapeutic artificial light when you can’t get natural sunshine. Studies have found when used properly, it can improve your mood and energy levels sometimes immediately or within two weeks. If your symptoms don't improve enough with light therapy, a lean protein, low-carb diet, exercise and a consistent sleep schedule, you may be struggling with SAD and need more help. Ask your doctor about other treatment options, such as antidepressants or psychotherapy.
True or false: Our mood drops in the winter because our fun level drops.
This is true, and so is the reverse. Our fun level drops in the winter because our mood level drops. One study found 90% of us spend almost half our winter weekends doing chores or job work instead of socializing or exercising7.
How to combat this? Find time to play! Just 20 minutes a day raises serotonin, our brain’s own biochemical antidepressant, which makes us less sensitive to pain, cold and can boost our immunity—both of which are more important in the winter. Find time for games, jokes and funny movies. Try to avoid your computer or smartphone before bed. The blue light interferes with melatonin production, the sleep hormone that promotes restful sleep6. Instead try a book, especially one that will put you to sleep in no time.
If you try all these suggestions and your winter blues/depression does not lift, ask yourself if your mood is disrupting your daily functions and your life satisfaction. If so, reach out for help. SAD-targeted therapy with a professional usually gets fast results. For many, mood medication can save months of sadness. But if these suggestions help and you are still feeling blah when it’s dark, hang in because spring is around the corner.
(1)National Institutes of Health
Sleep Med Clin. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2010 Jun 1.
Sleep Med Clin. 2009 Jun 1; 4(2): 285–299.Winter Depression: Integrating mood, circadian rhythms, and the sleep/wake and light/dark cycles into a bio-psycho-social-environmental modelAlfred J. Lewy, MD, PhD, Jonathan S. Emens, MD, Jeannie B. Songer, BA, Neelam Sims, BS, Amber L. Laurie, BA, Steven C. Fiala, BA, and Allie L. Buti, BS
(2) (Pub med (US Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, Gynecol Endocrinol. 2011 Sep;27(9):711-6. doi: 10.3109/09513590.2010.521266. Epub 2010 Oct 12).
(3) Menstrual cycles are directly influenced by sunshine.Danilenko KV1, Sergeeva OY, Verevkin Institute of Internal Medicine, Russian Academy of Medical Sciences),
(4) (Kirshenbaum M1,2, Ben-David A1,2, Zilberberg E1,2, Elkan-Miller T1,2, Haas J1,2, Orvieto R1,2,3.Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Chaim Sheba Medical Center, , Tel Aviv University, )
(5)( J. Neuroscience Letters (341, 2003, 25-28), April 21, 2003, University Of California, San Diego, (UCSD) School of medicine, Daniel Kripke.)
(6) Harvard Health Letter Blue light has a dark side :What is blue light? The effect blue light has on your sleep and more. Updated: August 13, 2018
(7)The National Human Activity Pattern Survey (NHAPS): Neil E Klepeis, William C Nelson, Wayne R Ott, John P Robinson, Andy M Tsang, Paul Switzer,Joseph V Behar,Stephen Cern & William H Engelmann , Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology volume 11, pages231–252(2001)