Fear Not the Winter Blues

How to thrive in the bleak midwinter.

Posted Dec 03, 2010

The poet Mary Oliver tells us this:

You do not have to walk for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

This is particularly pertinent at this time of year when cold, short days remind us that we are mammals—and, like other mammals, we have a drive to hide out during the dark months. We don't crawl like bears into our cozy caves, but we often want to.

Here in Minnesota, we know we feel differently from October through April than we do during the longer days of spring and summer. During those lighter, luxurious months, our "soft animal bodies" wake up: we have more bounce to our step, need less sleep, and feel more upbeat. Then, as winter approaches, many of us notice a disquiet that goes beyond the fear of the cold blasts coming our way.

Slowing down in winter is woven into our genes. Biologically, the issue is the length of the days, rather than the temperature or quality of the weather. When the days shorten, the brain produces more melatonin, making us feel more tired. Because the release of this sleep hormone is tied to the sunset, when the sun sets earlier, our body wants to go to bed earlier. You may notice that you feel very sleepy in the early evening.

Since most of us don't actually go to bed at 7 P.M., the effects of melatonin gradually wear off. By the time we do try to go to sleep, hours later, we may have gotten a second wind. Paradoxically, we may find ourselves staying up later than at other times of the year. Then when the alarm goes off in the dark the next morning, we may feel like that slumbering bear, unable to rouse ourselves for the day.

The tiredness that is so common during the winter months, then, is brought on by the shorter days and our common tendency to get out of sync with our natural circadian rhythms. If that were all that happened, we could live with it. But for a large number of people, it doesn't stop there. As many as 10% of us living in northern latitudes will develop significant symptoms of depression or anxiety. Another 25% or so will develop the milder versions of the same thing, known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.

We pay a price for the extra melatonin that we make in the winter. The brain uses the chemical serotonin to produce melatonin, so as melatonin goes up, serotonin levels go down. If serotonin gets too low, we feel anxious, depressed and may have additional trouble sleeping. Sleepiness from untimely melatonin release and low serotonin levels create the common symptoms of SAD: sluggishness, loss of motivation, excess sleepiness and sad or anxious mood.

Taking the Bite Out of Winter

What can we do about this biological challenge? The answer is to trick your brain into thinking that it is actually summer.

1. Make the days longer.

The best way to do this is with very bright lights. Exposure to bright light early in the day mimics an earlier sunrise. When you experience those lights late in the day, it seems that the sun is actually setting later than it really is. I advise my patients to purchase a lightbox and use it for 30 minutes in the morning (before 8 A.M. if possible) and another 15-30 minutes late in the day (between 5-7 P.M.). It is especially helpful to use lights then if you get very sleepy in the early evening.

2. Manage your sleep.

You may feel like sleeping a lot will be good for you, but it will usually make you feel even more sluggish. Aim for about eight hours per night, and try to get up at nearly the same time every day. If you sleep in by more than an hour, you will change your circadian rhythms. Avoid naps unless you sleep really well at night, and even then limit naps to 45 minutes or less in the early afternoon. If you need help falling asleep, consider trying a low dose of melatonin, which is available as a supplement without a prescription. I prefer using it only occasionally, and getting the sublingual form (that dissolves under the tongue). It works quickly, so you can wait and take it just before bedtime if you know it will be hard for you to fall asleep.

3. Eat like it's the middle of summer.

Think of how your body wants you to eat in the heat of summer: light, fresh foods, including lots of green vegetables and colorful fruits; modest amounts of lean protein; and few carbs and other comfort foods that become so prominent around the holidays.

4. Make more energy.

You make energy by expending energy. The best way to do this is through regular exercise. It is a cruel irony that those who may benefit most from vigorous exercise also have the hardest time doing it because of low motivation. It works best to start early in the season, before sluggishness sets in. Try to break a sweat, and work out for 30-45 minutes nearly every day if you can. Exercise in the late afternoon may help to reduce the early evening fatigue, and also improve sleep.

5. Add a few nutritional supplements.

Here is my supplement recipe for warding off the winter blues:

  • B complex (or a very good multivitamin): aim for at least 50 mg of vitamin B6; 100 mcg of vitamin B12; and 400 mcg of folate daily. Take half the dose twice daily, with breakfast and dinner.
  • Omega 3 (fish oil or ground flaxseed): Take at least 1,000 mg twice daily
  • Vitamin D3: 1,000-2,000 mg daily. Consider getting a vitamin D blood level through your primary physician, as some people need even higher doses.