Winter Blues: How Cold, Dark Days Can Take a Mental Toll

Winter BluesAfter last week’s look at what winter does in terms of physical symptoms, I’d be lax to not address the obvious elephant in the living room: mental health in the colder, darker season. I’ll admit I don’t know too many people who look forward to this time of year past the holidays. The adventure of winter sports aside (for those who love them) and the chance for a little social hibernation (for those who prefer that), winter can take an exponential toll on people past the New Year. That said, just how much is relative inconvenience versus clinical reality? Do our moods collectively change? Why do some people experience more significant effects? What are the real hormonal influences this time of year, and what (if anything) can or should we do about them?

To present one novel research context, even analysis of Google searches seems to point to some kind of seasonal shift in mental well-being. Researchers studied four years of Internet queries across countries in both the Southern and Northern hemispheres and observed that Internet searches for every major mental illness or condition—everything from schizophrenia to ADHD, anxiety to OCD—consistently rose during the winter months. While some categories like searches for bipolar disorder differed by 16-18%, others like eating disorders were 37-42% higher in winter than in summer. Internet searches for suicide rose 24-29% in winter compared to summer, even though actual suicide rates peak in late spring.

Of course, the most common (or at least commonly known) seasonal responses is Seasonal Affective Disorder, a.k.a. SAD, an ongoing form of depression in which symptoms annually subside during certain seasons (usually but not always summer). As with many forms of depression, people can experience a sense of hopelessess, a glut in energy, and sleep difficulties among other symptoms. Researchers estimate around 6% of the U.S. population (varying extensively from 1-10% based on latitude) experiences SAD and an unknown but much larger number go through a lesser form known as the “winter blues” in which similar symptoms occur but in milder forms.

Experts have long debated the causes of SAD, but the central assumption focused on reduced natural light exposure. That said, it’s not simply an isolated factor but a constellation of influences (including apparent genetic propensities, biological nuances and demographic facets). Women are much more likely than men to experience SAD symptoms with studies suggesting anywhere from a 2:1 to 9:1 ratio. Likewise, the initial cause becomes a more complex picture when researchers look at the cascade of presumed physiological effects.

In PET scans of live brain tissue, for example, researchers have discovered greater levels of serotonin transporters (which bind with and ferry serotonin to the nerve cells, in essence reducing serotonin activity) in the brain during the fall/winter months. Because serotonin is believed to help maintain emotional balance as well as influence energy levels, sleep/wake cycles and even to a certain extent appetite, the potential impact is obviously significant.

That said, just as not everyone would say they truly experience seasonal affective disorder, not everyone’s brain processes the seasonal serotonin change the same. Researchers have observed this shift as more of a “dial” than a switch, with those who experience SAD symptoms demonstrating a 5% increase in their serotonin transporter levels compared to their summer measures, while those without SAD showing no substantial rise.

Yet, it’s not only depression some of us may be dealing with. Animal research suggests that shorter days shift female hormone levels in such a way to promote more aggression. Female hamsters exposed to shorter days displayed more aggressive tendencies and had increased levels of both melatonin and DHEA than those exposed to longer days. Among the hamsters who experienced the longer light exposure, even an injection with ACTH (which spurs the release of DHEA) didn’t show the same responses as the short-day animals.

As the researchers note, it pays from an evolutionary perspective, to be more scrappy and aggressive during bouts when there is inevitably more competition for fewer food resources. If this pattern is applicable for humans, maybe it can partially explain why people go so insane on Black Friday….

Aggression aside, the evolutionary angle would seem to suggest people should conserve more energy in winter, that they would attempt to sleep longer and rest more. That said, we moderns live literally more sheltered lives than our primal ancestors did. Because of our housing and cars and offices, we are outside very little. We have plenty of elements to our modern lifestyle that already put our circadian rhythms at risk. We’re already chronically deficient in vitamin D. We’re stressed by too little sleep, too much stress, too little movement and too little genuine nutrition.

If we know a problem is seasonal in nature, the logical idea is to utilize whatever means we have available to minimize the seasonal deficits. We can spend more time outside during peak sunlight hours, use light boxes—still the most recognized and recommended SAD and winter blues treatment— and go to bed earlier without an evening’s worth of blue light from our T.V.s and gadgets. Likewise, we can supplement vitamin D (here’s the one I take), given our lower overall direct light exposure in the winter months and in certain cases with melatonin for realignment of our bodies’ cues with external timing. Finally, experts also increasingly emphasize that traditional talk therapy can for some people be even more effective than the use of any single traditional physical therapy. And if all else fails, try this one weird trick known as koselig.

As we so often recognize, Primal living takes the long view in resetting as much of ours lifestyles as possible, sometimes with traditional activities and sometimes with strategic stand-ins.

Have you experienced the winter blues or SAD? Share your perspectives on seasonal mood and treatment options. Thanks for reading, and have a great end to your week.

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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36 thoughts on “Winter Blues: How Cold, Dark Days Can Take a Mental Toll”

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  1. I’m convinced that I have SAD (or maybe I should say I had it). While I will always be a warm weather girl at heart, getting outside and at least walking every day is a huge help to me. And to be safe I supplement with vitamin D. Also just having a regular daily routine, and keeping my calendar full (but not too full) is helpful. A mid- winter trip to Mexico never hurts either!

  2. I deal with SAD even though I live in a sunny climate. The winter sun angle and shorter daylight hours just feel wrong compared to the rest of the year. Even though it’s “nice” out, at least compared to snowy or darker places, I still just want to hibernate until Groundhog Day.

  3. I really appreciate the evolutionary perspective on how seasonal shifts affect hormones, mood, behavior and such.

    Personally, since moving to Florida, I’ve suffered from ESD (Endless Summer Disorder). I love the fall, winter and change of seasons. So, so grateful we’re moving to Colorado in January!

    1. “ESD,” I love that!!! I usually say I have reverse SAD, but ESD so much more describes what it is. I’m in Texas, and it’s supposed to get up to 80 today :(. It just won’t end… Funny, I’m looking into moving to Colorado, too, hopefully next summer :)!

  4. I am one of those who do better with longer sunny days. What I notice the most is that I really don’t feel like doing ANYTHING……. including normal life stuff around the house, creating (jewelry, clothes, etc), make dinner, go outside for walks, get the mail, grocery shop, etc. So most of the time during these cold dark wet days I just bully myself to get things done, however, during the snow? Well, that’s different, LOVE THE SNOW, and typically it’s bright everywhere you look so maybe that’s what helps my mood improve. I’m considering getting a bright full spectrum type light for the bathroom and my desk at work. When I get home (darkness at 4:30 now) I turn as many lights on as possible until about 7, that helps me NOT try to fall asleep at 6:30…… ahahahahaha. We do what we can until we see light from 7 AM to 7 PM. Winter is a LOT shorter now that I’m in my 60’s.

    1. I, too, do better with long sunny days. I consider myself fortunate to live in Colorado, where it’s sunny most of the time, year-around. I lived in western Montana for a few years. I loved everything about it except the winter weather. The first year I was there we had something like 6 days of sunshine all winter. I found it very depressing. I was told I’d get used to it, but I never did.

      There’s not much to dislike here in metro-Denver. It’s seldom very cold and the periodic snowfalls melt away quickly under blue skies and sunshine. I am hoping Daylight Savings Time will eventually be year-around. Most of the people I’ve talked to would prefer that to the early evening darkness.

  5. I don’t get winter depression in the Mid-Atlantic states where I grew up, but when I lived in northwestern France I sure did! There’s a 7-8 degree difference in latitude, and thus in incoming solar radiation. It is apparently enough to matter for me.

  6. Heh. I seem to suffer from Reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder, if such a thing exists. I get really depressed in the summer. Weird.

      1. Summer depression is very real. It effects about 1% of the population and in sum ways is way more debilitating than normal SAD. Personally, I think that number is on the low end. Despite what many people have been lead to believe the suicide rate goes up during the summer and actually in most place peaks at the warmest months. Furthermore, crimes of agitation go up during the summer. The experience of anxiety, agitated depression and insomnia are all hallmark symptoms of summer depression. The exact mechanism of the disorder is unknown at present, but the most current thinking is the warmer weather and longer days disrupt circadian rhythms and cause an over stimulation of the production of neurotransmitters regulating mood. Essentially, your brain is calls from debt collectors to produce more feel good chemicals but it can’t because it’s tapped out. That causes overall supply to drop. Again this is just a theory.

        As someone who suffers from summer depression, I can say it is horrible. I spend almost every day from mid April to almost October feeling like all joy has sucked from life, wanting to hit the next person that talks about how great the warm weather is, fighting off crying spells. It sucks because at present there really isn’t any effective treatment.

        1. Ben, what you wrote really resonates with me. I live in Switzerland but grew up in Normandy (North-West of France) and I’m definitely a winter person. I was born on December 22nd, does it play a role?? No idea… Anyway, this year again, I’ve been feeling WAY more energetic than usual during the last 2/3 weeks. I HATE July/August here. We had a heat wave last summer and I lost appetite and sleep after about 3 weeks. Literally had to escape back to Normandy to enjoy 2 weeks at the sea side, with FRESH air. It’s very difficult here socially, because Swiss people generally love the sun, the summer and take it for granted that everybody feels the same. Well…no! I wonder how much of this “Syndrome” is linked to my Viking ancestors. Can my Body simply not cope with the sun (I have a VERY fair skin, never get a tan)? Is my “sun threshhold” lower than most People? Interesting questions for researchers I guess.

    1. How can there still be anyone left in Texas? They’ve all moved to southwest Colorado.

  7. I live in New England and agree with Mark that after the holidays, January, February and March can be a long stretch of cold, dark, snowy days. Vitamin D supplementation definitely helps me, but I’m writing to tell you about a free course that I just recently completed that may also help lift spirits during the winter months.
    It is a MOOC (massive open online course) offered through UC Berkeley called the Science of Happiness. It is being offered again starting on January 5th, and here is the link for more info:

    Topics covered include social connection, compassion and kindness, cooperation and reconciliation, mindfulness, mental habits of happiness, gratitude, etc. Unfortunately, it doesn’t cover nutrition and exercise, but we have Mark for that.

    The course is six months long and self-paced, meaning you decide when to read the essays and watch the videos. You can either take the mid-term and final exams (online, multiple choice, pretty easy) or choose to pass on the exams and simply audit the class for content.

    You are also encouraged to join a discussion group, either in person or virtual. It would have been great to have had a primal discussion group when I took the course.

    I really enjoyed this course and highly recommend it. It has made a big difference in my life. On a day to day basis, I feel happier with the simple practices that they recommend trying.

    As Mark once said, the goal is to lead an awesome life.

  8. When I moved from the gulf coast to Omaha for several years, I had trouble with winter short days. Wasn’t so much depression but my brain trying to fall asleep when it got dark at 4:30pm along with a mild anxiety that would set in with the dark. That was in the 80’s when it was just starting to come out about SAD. So I bought a shop light fixture and put full-spectrum grow lights in it for a makeshift light panel that I turned on at dusk, and it kept me more alert into the evening and helped with the anxiety. One thing I did love was jogging the hills in the snow and cold, even below zero, temps. I imagine that probably helped too. That was a real treat; now I am back to jogging on boring flat gulf coast terrain in the heat and humidity.

    1. Mona, my wife and I currently live in Omaha and are considering moving to the gulf coast in Florida. Any tips or things we should consider?

  9. The older I get the more I love fall and winter. Energy levels skyrocket. Summers are too hot and sap my energy. I can’t sleep as well in the heat and late light. I do enjoy four seasons though. It’s probably much weirder in 2 season places of just summer and winter.

  10. Great article. Like clockwork, myself and those around me often claim that they’re ‘in a funk’ every year at about this time. Bummed. Pissy. You name it. Luckily it doesn’t last forever. What I liked even better was the link back to that older article about solitude. I must’ve missed that one years ago, but I loved it today.

  11. I feel better this time of year if I get outside even if it’s dark. It’s easy to plunk down in the house as soon as it’s dark, which means being sedentary from about 6 pm until the next morning. Lately I’ve been kicking myself out the door for a walk. No benefit of sunlight exposure, but the moonlight and stars are great, and I feel better for it.

    Love the Black Friday hypothesis!

  12. Hey great article Mark. I don’t think I’ve ever really suffered from SAD myself, but I’ve witnessed it first hand. I use to fly bush planes in the Canadian Arctic and in the winter months its pretty much 24 hours of darkness. Sure you get to witness some cool thinks like the Northern Lights but no sun really starts to take it’s toll on people. On a lighter note the summers were fantastic with nearly 24 hours of straight daylight. Have a good one Mark.

  13. “As with many forms of depression, people can experience a sense of hopelessess, a glut in energy, and sleep difficulties among other symptoms.”

    C’mon now. Hopelessness is spelled wrong, and “glut” is misused. If being depressed would give me a glut of energy, I would say to sign me up…

  14. Its a good excuse to do some more cooking, get the oven on slow cooking some pork shoulder, making broth or baking paleo bread, at the same time you’re warming the house and feeling cosy.

    Running outside keeps you warm or the gym is more inviting too, have considered a rowing machine but don’t think I need it yet.

    Good books and refresh the mind with some quality time listening to music or picking up the guitar again.

  15. I used to really dislike the heat of the summer, and the cold of the winter. What I did was to get myself a beautiful koi pond in my yard, which I can enjoy all summer – even dip my feet in to cool off. Really helped me to look forward to getting outside, heat and all. Sitting there with a cool drink watching my fishies – perfect!
    And for the winter, actually all year – I got myself a chicken coop and a handful of chickens! They need the food and care no matter what the weather – and they give me fresh eggs every day in return. I enjoy getting out in the fresh air to see them every day. They’re so cute. Win-win!
    it worked for me.

  16. Reading through the comments made me feel so much better! I always thought there was something wrong with me because I prefer the cold, rain, snow and overcast days to the hot sun. During the Summer months all I want to do is sleep (hide) and eat, but some Fall/Winter, I have tons of energy and I don’t want to eat.

  17. My 12 yo son is affected, even when wearing sunglasses. We took him to Colorado this Fall and made him wear sunglasses on top of Pikes Peak, and he got all droopy. He took them off and was fine. Go figure.

  18. I’m a California gal now for 30 years or so. If it’s cloudy too long I definitely get the Blahs.

    Read the article about Norwegian’s and koselig – that’s what I love and need in winter – feeling cozy. I got two electric fireplaces this year to help that feeling, since we did not have a fireplace in the house and I didn’t want a wood-burning one or gas one. These electric ones do the trick.

    I got some strings of tiny led lights that I put in different areas, and a couple of nicely-scented candles – again, more koselig!

    I also like having friends and family over to have drinks and play games. All of these types of things help the winter blahs.

    Those of you with summer depression – is it because of the incessant heat?

  19. Interesting post!

    what if DEPRESSION is a NORMAL state of mind during winter? Think about it. what is common during the winter season everywhere in the world?


    It is the hardest time of the year to get food. in its effort to conserve energy, the mind goes into a natural depressive state, it is part of the body shutdown darting winter, because in times of famine your body’s survival mode is sit, shiver and hold on to your fat reserves at all costs. so it makes you DEPRESSED, which is the winter normal.

    What do you guys think?

    1. I agree with your points, if you take the right diet it definately helps a lot during winter and depression is just a state of mind…

    2. It’s an interesting point but I’m not sure how it stacks up if you’ve read the posts by Ben & Frenchsquirrel who suffer during the summer months.

      Still an intersting point to make, if focusing on the availability of food issue though would that not make for geographically specific issues rather than it just being a typical, cold, minimal sunlight winter issue? For instance in parts of the world where it becomes a case of dry vs wet, rather than hot vs cold seasons?

      I think some follow up reading might be required to delve a little deeper in to your point but one thing I know for sure is that Vitamin D is widely recognised to be an essential part of the fight against SAD. This is notoriously scarce in most food stuffs so again that wouldn’t really back up your statement.

      Personally I’ve never struggled to obtain food and eat very well. I’ve certainly suffered from SAD though and have always linked it to the lack of sunlight in winter months. Eat well, excercise and ensure you’re getting adequate levels of Vitamin D, either by sun lamp or supplementation (usually both for me) and the ‘Winter blues’ just fade away.

  20. the last 2 winters in the northeast were tough. By mid march, I was really getting down. Nothing would change that except the forsythias blooming, which was about 2 weeks later than usual last year.

    And those last two weeks were brutal.

    I’ll try light boxes and d supplements, but what I really need are bright yellow bushes.

  21. Looking outside it’s just foggy again today. I hate those dark grey days. Don’t get depressed but I miss doing gardening work and being active. After opening the door to the terrace the cats take a sniff of the air and often decline to go outside.

    Hot summers aren’t for me. Whenever ozone is high I get headaches when being outside.

  22. I live in the Tri-state
    SO far I am just so glad this winter has been like spring. Keeps me working out, I am able to take walks in the morning.
    I find I usually gain more weigh tin the winter because I dont even want to step outside. If Winter could always be in the 50s I would be a happy girl

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