Some notes on winter blues

Every day has fewer hours of sunshine, the skies are getting greyer and darker on the northern hemisphere. Quite a few people are mentally affected by winter: longer periods of low energy, bad mood and/or feeling depressed. The medicine men call it “seasonally affective disorder”, most people call it winter blues. There are some telltale signs that you may be affcted as well.

General low energy and mood

When the bright period of the day gets significantly shorter, usually around the beginning of November, a significant segment of the population experiences decreased overall energy levels, low mood or even periods of depression. (The onset is often accelerated by the stupid and wasteful “daylight saving” switchback from “summer time”.) The peak of the problem is usually in January or February, when the memory of the last summer is just a vague glimmer and there are still so many months until it gets really bright again.

Eating too much or too little

Many people who suffer from seasonal mood lows tend to get fatter during the winter. The reason is quite simple: eating carbohydrates secretes more insulin in your blood, which raises the relative level of tryptophan, which raises the serotonin production in your brain, which makes you feel better for a moment. This is the so called “sugar flash”. So you tend to eat more carbohydrates (like chocolate and other sweets) in winter, because the serotonine makes you feel temporarily better. Of course all the energy in the additional carbohydrates you eat needs to go somewhere, and if you don´t burn it of by moving it stays on as fat.

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The other extreme not eating at all or very little and irregularly during depressive periods. When energy levels have dropped so low that you can´t be bothered to care about this eating thing, you deny yourself even the temporary relief from the sugar/carbohydrate flash. Of course this will do nothing to get you out of the negative feedback loop as well.

Stimulants

Quite a few people try to compensate for their lack of energy in winter by consuming all kinds of stimulating pharmaceuticals from caffeine to ephedra up to cocain and speed. Not all stimulants work by the same pathways, but they generally tend to give you, at least temporarily, some energy and better overall feeling – even up to full-blown euphoria. The side effects of long-term use vary from generally tolerable (e.g. caffeine) to potentially quite serious in the case of some of the prohibted stimulant drugs. Some people who regularly use stimulants to cope with their depressed periods get suicidal tendencies. Their friends and relatives often don´t realise their happy surface is maintained by stimulants.

So if you observe yourself trying to overcome the lack of energy and reduced wellbeing in winter, with eating more and consuming more stimulating substances, please read on. If not, you might know some friends who show the symptoms.

I have some personal experience with the winter blues problem and experimented with various countermeasures over the last years. Below is my personal summary of results, from which you may benefit. I strongly encourage you to do your own searching and reading, which is why I don´t add a long list of references here as I don´t want to bias you. If you find interesting stuff, please put it into the comments. I have read quite a number of scientific studies on the subject which often seem to lead to contradicting results. But mostly they show that results are depending on study setup and analysis goals and that we simply don´t know enough yet about this subject. Experimenting and finding solutions that work for you is highly recommended. You have a decent chance to improve your life relatively easily without subscribing to theory A or belief system B or shelling out insane ammounts of money.

Attention: This short guide is NO replacement for professional therapy, it is just meant to inspire yout to try out simple measures which might improve your life. If you have depressed periods also during times when you get enough sun exposure or if your winter depression reaches the “cant leave the bed anymore”-level or if you are having suicidal thoughts, by all means go see a doctor very soon and talk to your friends about how you feel.

Causes

Our bodies have adapted to sunshine during evolution in many ways. Two mechanisms are especially important for the subject at hand – why do we feel shitty during winter?

Melatonin and Light

The first, relatively well researched mechanism is the Melatonin-Cycle. Melatonin drives our inner clock and regulates the sleep / wake rythm. If there is too much left in your system during the day, you are groggy, sleepy and unfocused. If there is not enough around when you want to sleep you are restless and have trouble sleeping. Melatonin is created in the pineal gland. Its creation is blocked by light, specifically of light in the 446–477 nm spectrum (blue-green). So during the brighter part of the year you get enough light in this spectrum to keep melatonin generation blocked during the day. But when the sky is grey and the days are short, this blocking mechanism is not as active as you would like.

Vitamin D3

The second thing dragging us down in winter, less well researched, is apparently the lack of vitamin D3 aka. Cholecalciferol. The vitamin is formed under exposure to UV-B light in the skin. During winter, the exposure to UV-B is substantially lower then during summer, so less vitamin D is formed in the skin. There are some theories on the exact mechanism how Cholecalciferol influences the mood and there are a number of studies that link lower vitamin D3 blood levels to depressive periods. So while the exact pathway of action is not yet fully understood there are sufficient indications that vitamin D3 plays a significant role in mood regulation.

Self-help methods

I have been experimenting with quite a number of methods over a couple of years. Some don´t work for me, some only work for a little while (probably pure placeboe effect) and some have unpleasant side effects that were not worth the positive effects. Here is what produced the most consistent results for me without bad side effects. Things may be different for you, so I encourage yout to experiment and find out what works for you.

Light

The most important method to improve your mood is to get enough light, especially in the critical blue-green spectrum around 446–477 nm. Whenever there is a clear day in winter, get out and expose as much skin as is temperature-appropriate. Turn your face towards the sun. Don´t use sunglasses. Try to catch the sun while it is higher up in the sky, light intensity is highest then. Try to change your everyday habits so that you can adopt a longer walk or a bit of just sitting in the sun and relaxing on days when the sun shines.

Since these clear and bright days tend to be few and far between in most areas in winter you can compensate to install a lot of artificial light. The brighter the better. Make sure you use fluorscent tubes that have a decent peak (and not a hole!) in the critical spectrum around 446–477 nm. “Full spectrum” or “daylight” tubes often have this spectrum characteristic, but not all of them. The better vendors have data sheets with spectrum plots, where you can see how much of the energy is actually radiated in the wanted melatonin-reducing spectrum. However, there are “daylight” and “full spectrum” tubes that are designed to look pleasant and “not so cold” but miss out on the critical part of the spectrum we want for our mood. So take a look at the datasheets and avoid tubes where the vendor does not provide a spectrum plot.

Another good option is to get a “light therapy” device, which is essentially a standalone light containing very bright fluoroscent tubes that in most cases have the desired spectrum covered. They tend to be a bit pricey but are a good option when youre not able to modify the overall light situation (at your workplace etc.). My personal preference here are Philips devices as they are long-lasting and dont flicker – something that can be quite unnerving in some of the lower-end products in the market. Philips also makes a nice but outrageously expensive little LED light called Golite Blu that is portable and in my experience quite effective. The light therapy devices are placed within your normal field of view, e.g. next to your screen. The nearer to you, the more intense the effect.

You should however not overdo it. There are some indications that especially blueish light of too high intensity may cause slow damage to the eye. Also take note that you are essentially manipulating your melatonin production and with that your sleep / wake cycle. Melatonin is very useful for many other things in the body, so while you indeed can lengthen your wake-time by applying the melatonin-blocking light for much longer then a normal summer day, you should not do that too often. Switch off the bright lights a couple of hours before you want to go to sleep. Some people experience that gradually raising light intensity at the start of their wake phase and reducing it towards the end works best for them. You should take the scientific approach and take notes, so you actually producing knowledge and get the ability to reproduce what you experience as good for you.

Another useful hint: when you entered the “dark phase”, meaning you want to go to bed or are already sleepy or sleeping, avoid exposure to the melatonin-killing blue-green light spectrum. If you need to go to the toilet at night or similar activities, try to structure things so that you only see redish and low intensity lights. That also means taping over blue LEDs in your various electronic devices in your sleeping room. Otherwise you will confuse your body unnecessarily.

Vitamin D3

In contrast to the rather well-researched influence of melatonin-bocking light there are relatively new and not so well researched indications that vitamin D3 is important for your mood as well. There are two ways of getting enough of it in winter. The first is to regularly visit a solarium that has – and this is important – tan beds with sufficient UV-B tubes. The drawback of this method are of course cost, risk of malign melanoma in your skin and various cultural challenges that may be associated with sun studios.

The second option is to add vitamin D3 to your diet. The traditional method is cod liver oil (Lebertran in german). The olfactoric side effects of cod liver oil and its production method make this option not the most attractive one to many people. In modern times you can also just buy a vitamin D3 supplement at the pharmacy for very little money. Most of the studies that actually detected positive effects seem to agree, that a dose of 800-1000 IU is appropriate for adults to show positive effects, however there are of course also studies that see positive effects at lower (e.g. 400 IU) or much higher (up to 6000 IU or more) doses. Since vitamin D3 in too high doses has a number of risks like distorted calcium absorption and resulting organ problems, the higher doses do not seem to be recommendable. Please tell your doctor if you start taking a vitamin D3 supplement, especially in higher doses, so he/she can check your blood from time to time to see if your body is experiencing any negative side effects from it.

Bodily activities

A tip for way better general mood and wellbeing is to excersize your muscles and do more sport. Your body produces lots of happyness-hormones during and after sports and these can be used effectively to counteract winter blues. The typical problem is of course that once the winter blues hits, the motivation for more movement and sport drops below zero. So maybe try the tips above to gather enough energy to get yourself motivated for some mood-improving activtities. The trick is to get into a positive feedback loop, not a negative one. Once down you will sink further, because things you could do to improve your mood require energy that you don´t seem to have. But if you can break that downward cycle by ordering yourself some lights and possibly some D3, use that energy to get even better by adding some muscle usage on top, you might be able to build a sufficient buffer of happiness in case some mishap or problem threatens to drag you down again. Don’t give up: surviving the dark winters in good spirits is a challenge that requires attention, creativity and patience.

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19 thoughts on “Some notes on winter blues

  1. earli

    Please consider the difference between fructose and glucose before generalizing about carbohydrates.

  2. jEN

    Good article! I also use a Philips light therapy device which has made a huge difference in my overall energy level, and most importantly, in my sleep cycle. I got the “light shower” four years ago and still cannot notice any decrease in light intensity. My constant sugar cravings went down as well.

    Can you give a source on the indications that overdoing this might be bad for the eyes? Because I really like staring into the device for 30-45 minutes a day while listening to podcasts to get me started for the day.

  3. laus

    i fought quite a while, since i was a child and in school, with this winter blues. Two years ago it really got worse. My emotional state was horrible, despite all parameters of my surroundings and relations were really good and i absolutely had no reason to be so completely down. As i decided this not to be bearable i went to see doctor, with a certain suspicion in mind: My Mother suffered from similar conditions years ago and was diagnosed with a rare version of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. So i explicitly asked them to check my thyroid gland.

    Thankfully i am not “blessed” with this autoimmunic disease. But indeed the corresponding values in my Blood showed anomalies and after a sonography my thyroid gland was found to be well, but small and it seems that it just hasnt got the capacity to deal with the winter, i am completly ignorant on how this might work, but the therapy i get does the job. Since then i take a small dose of Levothyroxin each day. During the other seasons it is of no perceivable effect, but it saves the day in winter.

    So depending on the level of depression you feel and wether problems with the thyroid appear in your family you might also have it checked. This is probably not the most common reason for the winter blues and if you dont have a genetic predisposition for it, you maybe can disregard this and try to cope with it on usual ways.
    If on the other hand you have allready tried a lot and know somebody in your family to suffer from a thyroid disfunction this could be a thing to look for and maybe end the suffering.

    This is my personal experience and should not encourage you to self-diagnosis, self-medication or anything. It is only another thing you can have checked. In any case, if you suffer from severe depressions, see a doctor!

  4. Martin

    My problem with eating is, that I eat way too less. I simply lack the motivation to get up and cook something or even to think about what to eat at some days. I don’t really know how to fight that yet, I try to get out at least once a day to get some sunlight, maybe that’ll help anytime soon.

  5. ElKa

    There have been some arguments whether D2 (Ergocalciferol) is equally effective as D3 (Cholecalciferol) but generally it works, too. Its advantage is, it is suitable for vegetarians and vegans (D3 comes from dead sheep’s wool – there are few exceptions and these products are still quite expensive). And with “Sterogyl”, it is available in decently high doses at low cost. You can buy that in France or order it via pharmacies, at least in Germany.

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  7. Sean Mac

    Lived in Montreal for years, and the winters were brutal. Vitamin D + Fish Oil very helpful… reason for the fish oil was the story about Canadian Inuits who changed their diet from their natural diets high in fish oil to the standard North American diet began to suffer from the Winter Blues.

    It must really suck to be an eskimo with the winter blues… but it said something for using fish oil…

    Then we moved to Key West, FL. That solved the problem :)

  8. Thilo

    You forgot about friends and relatives. I think social contact can do the most for you when you’re about to submerge into inner darkness. So if you are easily affected by depression then reaching out for help is one of the most important skills to master. It is also one of the hardest.

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  10. Ferdinand

    Another hint for those who work a lot in front of LCDs and CRTs: These usually have quite an amount of blueish lights. We learned above that this helps prevent the blues, but it also effects your sleep cycle. Anyone ever experienced that thingie “Gosh, it’s half past three already! I need to get up at six…” ?? This probably comes from the blue lights from your screen.

    The good news: There’s help freely available. Under Linux you may use tools like redshift or f.lux, for other OSes similar tools are available. These tools change the colour tempreature of your screen and help you to “cool down” like you usually do in the evening. Under KDE there’s a widget available which does this automatically for you so your sleep cycle won’t be altered by your work at the computer…

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