About the Winter Blues

By Debbie Stafford, Legislative Director, Aurora Mental Health & Recovery

Have you or a loved one experienced a change in mood this winter season? If you have, you’re not alone – and science has uncovered some straightforward reasons why so many individuals feel down this time of year. The “winter blues” – known to mental health professionals as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – are associated with less exposure to sunlight.

Vitamin D and the Sun

During the winter months, individuals with limited access to the sun’s rays fail to produce enough Vitamin D in their bodies. You may be surprised how much that can impact your mental health.

Studies suggest Vitamin D assists in producing serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate moods, appetite, sleep, and energy levels. Without enough Vitamin D, our bodies produce less serotonin. This can result in negative mood shifts, feeling extremely tired, and even eating an unhealthy diet.

Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Now about those winter blues…Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression with symptoms that typically occur for 4 to 5 months per year. It’s most common during the winter months (hence the “winter blues”), but it can and does occur in the summer as well. Symptoms of SAD may include:

  • Constantly feeling overwhelmed or sad
  • Feeling tired physically and mentally
  • Sleeping more
  • Having a hard time concentrating
  • Losing interest in personal hobbies and activities
  • Increased cravings for sugar and carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
  • Social isolation
  • Feeling hopeless, self-injury, and thinking of suicide

Who’s at Risk?

Winter blues may impact anyone who lives with less sunlight and it’s predictably more common in the northern states (Alaska, Washington, etc.).  Like other types of depression, people whose family has a history of members who struggle with depression, including major depression or bipolar disorder are at increased risk for developing symptoms. Females and those working in dark environments like offices without windows or those who work night shifts may also be more likely to develop SAD. We also know that poor gut health can impact our mental well-being.

How to Treat the Winter Blues

If you believe you’re showing symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, here’s what you can do:

  • Get more sunlight exposure and exercise.
  • Add a sun lamp in your environment for increased indoor light.
  • Change your diet. Probiotics, yogurt, fruit, and vegetables may help.
  • Try a Vitamin D supplement.
  • Get healthier sleep (go to bed and get up at the same time, avoiding naps and caffeine).
  • Engage in more social activities.
  • See a therapist.

For anyone struggling with mental health, the important thing to remember is that you are not alone. Millions of Americans suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and other forms of depression. Not only is it normal to struggle with mental health, but it’s also normal to get better. The best thing you can do is ask for help.

If you or someone you know may be suffering from the winter blues, call Aurora Mental Health & Recovery at (303) 617-2300.