I’ll admit to California dreaming on dark and rainy days, even though I’m only eight miles from an actual beach (in California). Windows open, warm breeze, radio loud—there’s something to be said about thinking summer thoughts when you’re knee-deep in winter.
And I know I’m not the only one who feels a little de-energized (and magnetized to long naps and sugary snack time) when winter days go dark—many of us experience a “winter blues” of sorts. There’s a reason: Brian Thompson, PhD, a Portland-based clinical psychologist, says that circadian rhythms (controlled by a “master” clock in the brain that tell us to sleep when it’s dark and wake when it’s light) may be the culprit in seasonal mood swings.
“What cues our circadian rhythm is daylight. When the daylight hits our eyes—it sends a signal into the brain. What researchers believe is that as the days grow shorter and darker, we don’t have the daylight cues that we should be up and awake, and this 24-hour [schedule] gets desynchronized. We are up and supposed to be active—but the brain is sending a signal that we should be tired and lethargic.”
All science aside, there’s no way that I’m going to let a desynchronized circadian rhythm get in the way of my most (ahem) busy schedule—and I know you probably feel the same. So, retire the yoga pants (that haven’t been near an actual studio) and half-gone bag of Kettle Corn—I’ve figured out a few ways to help you reclaim your winterized get-up-and-go.
No Seasonal Schedule Changing
Dr. Michael McCarthy, MD, PhD, a psychiatrist and circadian rhythm researcher at UC San Diego's Center for Chronobiology, advocates for keeping your daily schedule the same year-round. “It doesn’t matter as much in the summer when light exposure is high—but in the absence of light, maintaining activity schedules helps reinforce circadian rhythms.”
Which means: If you’re used to a daily regimen of sitting down to a hearty bowl of quinoa and kale at 7 PM in the summer—don’t change it come winter (even if I’m extremely jealous of your discipline and dinner planning).
Says McCarthy, “Try to keep a schedule that’s as regular as possible, and early as possible. If you usually go to work at 8 AM, don’t let yourself drift toward 9 or 10 [in the winter]. Try to keep the time the same. Don’t let it get later and later so you’re confusing your clock about what time it is.”
The Sun Can Be Your Saving Grace
McCarthy says early morning sunlight is a natural mood booster—but it’s common to miss it in the darker days of winter, especially if you awaken before the sunrise (or sleep a bit later) then head straight to work.
Be sure to grab a daily dose of early AM rays (even little as 30 minutes may be effective)—and if you can, double down and grab the treadmill that’s near a brightly lit window. “Early morning physical activity is helpful, too,” says McCarthy.
Also, don’t forget to tell your Taco Tuesday comrades that you’re calling it a night—way before last call. “For the 9-to-5 working demographic, a common situation is that people still have to wake early (e.g., for work) but stay up too late, get insufficient sleep, and feel tired and unmotivated all day. Then, in an attempt to catch up (e.g., weekends) they sleep into the late morning or afternoon, which causes people to miss the window when sunlight works best on mood,” explains McCarthy. Nixing all napping is suggested for the same reason.
And, last, note that darkness may be as helpful as daylight. “Make sure your sleeping environment is dark as possible,” McCarthy suggests. “There is evidence in animal studies that even dim light, like from an alarm clock or an outside streetlight, might be enough to cause depression. It hasn’t been tested in people, but the downside to doing this is low.”
Seek Help For Severe Symptoms
Although simple fixes like exercise, good nutrition (hopefully, the Kettle Corn has not migrated back into your lap), sunlight, and schedule-keeping are helpful for winter blues—some women sway into more severe territory.
If you’ve experienced major lack of motivation, impairment in your relationships or work performance, the sense that things aren’t ever going to get better, or suicidal thoughts—see your doctor ASAP. You may meet the diagnostic criteria for seasonal affective disorder (or SAD)—which is just a fancy way of saying depression that occurs on a seasonal basis.
McCarthy says a SAD diagnosis may be more likely with a history of premenstrual dysphoric disorder (or PMDD, which is characterized by depression, irritability, and tension before your period), post-partum depression, or bi-polar disorder—although most risk studies are centered in regular depression.
Family history of psychiatric illness may also ratchet up risk, as well as if you have a co-current medical condition (like thyroid disease) or have experienced a past or recent trauma (and yes, a pre-Valentine’s day breakup with your boyfriend—or boss—totally counts).
There’s also a caveat for us cubicle dwellers: If you’re somewhat vulnerable to SAD, spending time in the confines of a low-light office environment may worsen your symptoms.
A Bright Idea is Best?
Treatment for SAD does not differ drastically from regular depression in the drug department—SSRIs (or selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) like Prozac (fluoxetine) are frequently recommended. McCarthy often suggests folate or omega-3 fatty acids as well—as there’s some evidence these supplements may help mood in regular depression.
All that said, those with SAD may benefit from a mood booster that is totally chemical-free. Commercially available light boxes can be purchased with a simple click on Amazon, and in no time you can be basking in its rays while having your morning coffee. Thirty minutes a day is generally recommended for starters (but you’ve got to commit to waking up before dawn to do it).
Thompson says, “The key thing to look for is broad spectrum white light boxes that are 10,000 lux [a lux is a measure of light intensity]. Additionally, white light boxes should be large enough so that some of the light hits from just above your eyes. About 60-70% of people will respond to light therapy and most people notice [a difference] within the first week.”
And one final note: A light “treatment” never recommended (for anyone ever) is a tanning booth. “Tanning booths have UV rays that are harmful to the eyes and skin. If you have winter blues, a tanning booth is not the place to go,” says Thompson.
So what’s the bottom line in all this lighthearted (yes, I did) banter? Your brain is a creature of the sun—even though what’s outside your window is telling you otherwise.