How Winter Affects Mental Health

Jake Newby

| 3 min read

It’s common to feel sad and a bit hopeless during the dead of winter.
The rapid change in the duration of sunlight and darkness that occurs more quickly in October through early December each year – especially in the midlatitudes – can trigger the “wintertime blues,” clinically known as seasonal mood disorder.
SMD is a form of mild to moderate depression that tends to fade in the spring when the process reverses itself with the rapid prolongation of the photoperiod (sunshine) versus the darkness of night.
SMD can zap our energy, make us sad and irritable and alter our sleeping and eating patterns. SMD isn’t strictly reserved for the winter, but that’s when it most often occurs. If you’re feeling glum right now and don’t know why, just know you’re not alone.

What causes SMD?

The changes outlined above have a proven effect on our circadian clocks, which are internally driven cycles that rise and fall during the day. They help us fall asleep at night and wake us up in the morning. They also affect our hormones and hormonally sensitive medical issues; even diabetes can be affected.
There have been comparisons to hibernation for some animals and this is indeed the same mechanism that triggers that phenomenon. 
Our sleeping patterns aren’t the only thing in lockstep with our circadian clock, which also regulates body temperature rhythm, eating and digesting, and hormonal activity. The change of sunlight to dark ratio may also cause issues with serotonin, a brain chemical that can affect the mood. In short, our bodies and mind are aware of the lack of sunshine, and they behave accordingly.
You’re likelier to develop SMD if you are related to someone affected by it, have a mood disorder yourself or a family member that has a mood disorder. Like other forms of depression, SMD is more common in women: they are three times more likely to be affected than men.

SMD symptoms

Symptoms of SMD are like those of depression. They may include:
  • Anxiety
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Increased cravings (especially for carbohydrates)
  • Lack of energy
  • Sadness and hopelessness
  • Social withdrawal
  • The inability to enjoy things that normally bring you pleasure

Treatment for SMD

If a person has SMD, it is possible to soften its symptoms with phototherapy. Starting in September and continuing phototherapy through mid-April has substantial benefits, but this process should always be under the consultation of a psychiatrist or physician that is treating you. There is a risk in some people to develop manic symptoms, which can also be problematic. There are medication protocols that can also be effective.
Schedule an appointment with your primary care provider (PCP) if you think you are suffering from SMD. No one is alike, so there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to treating SMD. Your PCP may recommend lifestyle changes like exercise, nutrition, sleep, and relaxation as well.
Consult with your PCP before taking supplements like vitamin D and melatonin. Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to depression. Vitamin D is produced in the skin when it's exposed to sunlight and can help increase serotonin activity.
Less sunlight and a lack of vitamin D from foods and other sources may result in low levels of vitamin D in the body. Vitamin D supplements can have a positive effect on a person suffering from different forms of depression.
Photo credit: Getty Images

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