Fighting the winter blues

For those of us in the northern hemisphere, the Winter Blues are all too familiar. There is a camaraderie found in celebrating our yearly migration indoors to more sleep, bigger blankets, and anything apple-spice – and in Canada, that can come as early as September and last well past Easter. With sunlight beginning to taper off in mid-august, and days becoming noticeably shorter by October, we are well accustomed to the transition from what always feels like a short-lived summer, into the woes and throes of the winter months.

For some, that transition is more than just begrudging frustration at the need to dig out the snow shovels and prepare for colder weather. Many Canadians report suffering from seasonal mood changes that impair their work and life functions dramatically, and the effects of seasonal mood disorders have even been linked to fluctuations in the economy.

So, what exactly is a seasonal mood disorder?

Seasonal Depression (also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder or S.A.D.) is a condition that affects an estimated 2-3% of Canadians. Characterized as a type of depression that is understood to be directly linked to levels of sunlight exposure, it is typically experienced in the fall and winter months, although some people suffer from it in the spring and summer as well. It is estimated that people with seasonal depression will make up around 10% of all depression cases in Canada, with adults being at a much higher risk than children or teens. Women are eight times more likely than men to suffer from SAD, and the farther north you live, the higher the chances of experiencing it.

What does it feel like?

People suffering from SAD report symptoms such as:

  • Low energy levels
  • Social withdrawal
  • Apathy towards activities that were once enjoyable
  • Depression
  • Anxiety and agitation
  • Feeling groggy
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Appetite changes, craving sugary or carbohydrate-rich foods
  • Decreased libido

A person with Seasonal Depression may experience only a few, or many, of these symptoms in varying degrees. The effects are often felt rather than seen, making it difficult to diagnose or understand without education and awareness. For many of us, the winter months bring variations in energy and mood changes that are normal, but for those experiencing SAD, these effects are much more dramatic and intense.

What are the causes?

Seasonal Affective Disorder is believed to be caused by a reduced sensitivity or exposure to sunlight. As the season progresses and the days grow shorter, the amount of available light decreases. This lack of light affects the production of certain hormones in the brain, hormones which regulate our circadian rhythms, and our mood.


Circadian and circannual rhythms are the physical, mental and behavioural fluctuations that follow a daily or yearly cycle. They are dependant on the levels of light exposure and darkness in our environment, and all organisms are affected by them in a different way. Typically, humans are hardwired to be awake during daylight hours and to sleep at night, and there is even evidence to suggest that exposure to artificial lighting can affect these cycles and our sleep quality.

Many animals hibernate during the winter, and the signal to begin preparing for this “deep rest” comes earlier in the season, usually towards the onset of fall. This change of season, including temperature shifts and a subtle but progressive reduction in visible light, signals to the animal that the cold months of winter are ahead. Although we don’t enter a literal hibernation during the winter like some animals do (our core temperature doesn’t drop and we don’t go into a coma), we are subject to circadian and circannual rhythms like all animals.

Our Biological Clock

Our biological clock is nature’s timing device. There is a part of the brain that is directly affected by levels of sunlight exposure, and it receives this information via neuronal pathways coming from the eyes. This internal clock is what tells us to wake up when the sun rises and to go to bed when it sets. It is an evolutionary adaptation to our environment and is why we are categorized diurnal instead of nocturnal.

In humans, our biological clock is regulated and influenced by the hormones melatonin, serotonin, and vitamin D. Directly affected by sunlight exposure, these compounds play an interconnected role in the way our brains and bodies respond to light, and the timing with which our circadian rhythms, metabolism, and even our body temperature is regulated.


Melatonin is the hormone responsible for coordinating our circadian rhythms. When our eyes are exposed to sunlight, receptors tell our brain to stop producing melatonin. This light stimulates hormones in the brain, and these hormones regulate our sleep-wake cycles. Less sunlight equals more melatonin production, which is one of the main reasons we feel so sleepy when it gets dark. In the fall and winter months, when the levels of available light decrease, our brains will invariably create higher levels melatonin as a result, and this is thought to be one of the contributing factors to Seasonal Depression.


Commonly referred to as a “feel good hormone”, serotonin is a neurotransmitter that has long been understood to regulate our mood and how happy we feel. Chemically related to melatonin, serotonin is also thought to play an important role in regulating our circadian rhythms, and it is also known to influence our sex drive, appetite and digestion, and our memory. Low levels of serotonin are linked to mood disorders and our levels of serotonin decrease in the winter months.

Vitamin D

Well known for its contributions to healthy bones and immunity, Vitamin D also plays a major role in mood and mental well-being. Deficiency is all too common in North America, and it is believed that 30-40% of Canadians are below normal levels. It is often called “The Sunshine Vitamin”, and is aptly named, as our bodies naturally produce it with adequate exposure to the sun. Vitamin D is believed to affect genes that regulate the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, and low levels of Vitamin D have been linked to poor mood, Major Depressive Disorder, and SAD.

Other Factors

There is some evidence to suggest that Seasonal Depression, like other major mood disorders, may be genetic. If a parent or close family member suffers from SAD, you are more likely to inherit the condition. Seasonal Depression may depend on the way a person’s brain is genetically wired to produce and respond to various hormonal changes, and a more recent study links the possibility of this condition to a genetic mutation that makes a person’s eyes less sensitive to light.

9 Ways to Cope with Seasonal Depression

Baring a migration to a tropical island or other equatorial regions, the majority of people living in the northern hemisphere are subject to dramatic seasonal changes we otherwise wish we could escape from. For many of us, this means we are more likely to encounter the winter blues, or another major seasonal mood disorder, on an annually recurring basis. There are a number of ways to cope with Seasonal Depression, and although the methods below are no substitute for the balmy and sunshine-filled days of summer, they can help reduce the severity of seasonal mood changes and contribute to better mental and physical health overall.

Consider the following if you suffer from Seasonal Depression, or if you are looking for ways to improve your winter self-care habits.

1: Light Therapy

Full Light Spectrum Therapy is the most commonly suggested treatment method for Seasonal Affective Disorder. Otherwise known as “Light Box Therapy”, the process involves sitting in front of a light box that emits a specific wavelength of blue light for 30 minutes each day. (A regular light bulb or lamp won’t do, as the type of light coming from these sources does not mimic the natural light from the sun as lightboxes do.)

This light exposure helps to decrease melatonin production and has been shown to improve mood and symptoms of SAD equal to or greater than that of treatment with antidepressant medication. Lightboxes can be purchased online or in stores, there are a variety of styles to choose from. A similar therapy is called “Dawn Stimulation” which utilizes a type of light alarm clock to recreate the gradual increase of light at sunrise.

2: Exercise

Regular exercise has been documented to help combat depression and mood disorders, so snow and colder weather are no excuse to slack in this department. The temperature may be frigid, but there are plenty of fun and engaging indoor exercise options to add to your weekly regimen that will ensure you keep your body active, even if your car doesn’t want to start.

Yoga is a great way to build gentle and consistent strength, and the meditation and mindfulness benefits can contribute to a greater sense of calm and well being. Take a dance class or try rock climbing for a new and invigorating way to get moving, or join a gym for a more classic workout.

3: Eat well

With Thanksgiving, Halloween and Christmas practically back-to-back, it is easy to overindulge in many a delicious holiday treat. Maintaining a balanced diet during the winter months is essential to maintaining a healthy mind and body, as carbs, sugar and caffeine lead to crashes that are often difficult to bounce back from. Avoid using alcohol or recreational drugs to cope, as these substances are taxing to the body and mind, and have the potential to worsen Seasonal Depression symptoms.

4: Go Outside

Although it is much more inviting to stay inside on a cold day, pushing yourself to head outdoors is one of the best things you can do to help ward off the winter blues. Winter can be extremely beautiful, and natural areas become a new world to explore during the snowy season. Buy some bird seed and head to a local park, or rent some snowshoes and explore the backcountry for a fresh perspective. Not only will an afternoon spent outside give you a healthy dose of sunshine and some Vitamin D, the exercise, fresh air, and change in atmosphere will give your body and mind a much-needed lift.

5: Stay Active

Rather than swaddling yourself up in every blanket you own to rewatch Stranger Things on Netflix for the twelfth time, consider exploring the many different activities that are available during the winter months. Check out indoor farmers markets for fresh and local ingredients. Buy tickets to a live theatre production, visit a local art gallery, or try a painting or pottery class. Many of these activities are overlooked during the summer when patios and beaches beckon us outside, and a number of unique hobbies are only available in the winter.

6: Stay social

Like many other animals that hibernate during the colder temperatures, the urge to isolate and withdraw is strong in winter, and Seasonal Depression can accentuate this compulsion to an exaggerated degree. It is tempting to go into full hermit-mode, but continuing to stay social despite the tendency towards introversion can help ease the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder and make navigating the discomforts a little less painful. There are plenty of fun and relatively stress-free things to do during the winter months that will help keep you engaged and feeling connected so that you don’t have to suffer alone. Plan a weekly potluck or board game night with friends, or a consider joining a book club. Make a point of attending parties and other gatherings, if only for the change of scenery and a few hours of company.

7: Go Somewhere

Nothing breaks the monotony of 8 months of blizzards and – 30-degree weather like hopping a plane to Tahiti. Planning for a long distance getaway mid-season can give you something positive to look forward to, and will provide some much needed R&R, sunshine, and a real change of scenery to counter the dreary winter blues. Taking a break from the daily work and life routine will help as well. Having something exciting to look forward to can be a great mood booster, and the expectation and anticipation will give you something exciting to motivate you and keep you thinking positively.

8: Vitamins

Vitamins and supplements may be helpful additions in managing seasonal mood disorders, as many of these substances are limited or reduced during the winter months due to lack of sun exposure. Vitamin D supplementation is commonly recommended by doctors in Canada as a factor in maintaining good health and warding off deficiency. It is the easiest way to raise levels during the winter months when sun exposure is limited, and it is available at most drug stores at health food stores.

5-HTP, an amino acid and nutritional precursor to serotonin synthesis, has been studied for its possible positive contributions as a treatment for depression. Some anecdotal evidence suggests it may be helpful to manage symptoms of SAD that are thought to be caused by low serotonin levels, but further studies are needed to confirm this. Supplementing with 5-HTP can have unwanted side-effects and possible drug interactions, so it is recommended to check with your doctor or pharmacist before taking it.

9: Therapy

If Seasonal Depression symptoms are quite severe, speaking with a trained psychologist, counsellor, or psychiatrist may be more beneficial than navigating the issue alone. In some cases, Seasonal Depression can be positively influenced by treatments like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, a method in which a person learns to better identify negative recurring thoughts and patterns of behaviour. Over time, this greater self-awareness allows the person to change these beliefs, attitudes, and to more positive ones. In extreme cases, your therapist might suggest treatment with SSRI’s or other anti-depressant medication.


Coping with Seasonal Mood Disorders means taking a page from the world of intuition. In the winter months our bodies and minds slow down because they have no other choice; they are wired to respond to changes in nature and the proverbial cycles all of us are inherently attuned to. Our bodies struggle to remain energized and to keep up with a pace most of us carry on all year out of necessity.

Daylight savings might propose to be well intended, but the truth is that this lack of light results in less energy for us to power our activities and ourselves. Responding to these seasonal fluctuations means engaging in activities that continue to promote and encourage your mental and physical well-being, and being patient with yourself and those you love.

If you or someone you know is struggling with Seasonal Depression, consider the suggestions above to help cope. If your symptoms worsen, or you are experiencing thoughts of self-harm, talk to someone like a trusted friend or family member, a therapist, or try contacting one of the helplines listed below.

For access to worldwide crisis hotlines, visit:


Article written by Lindsay S. Dunlop