It’s long been understood that sunlight affects our mood. For Canadians and others who live far from the equator, we have come to know that our long winters filled with short days makes us cranky.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that is directly related to lack of sunlight. But people diagnosed with SAD are not the only ones who suffer through the short days and long nights. In fact, there is evidence that other people suffering from depression can experience more severe symptoms in the winter, and even people who don’t generally suffer from depression can also be susceptible to what some call “The Winter Blues”.
Most of us are conscious of not seeing the sun as often as we’d like in winter, but the science of sunlight and mood is all about chemistry.
What happens in your body when you don’t get enough sunlight?
The human body is designed to be active in the daytime and passive at night. To accomplish this, we all have receptors that identify when it is sunny, and they tell the body to produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter that makes us alert and energetic. Likewise, we also have receptors that identify when it’s dark, and they tell the body to produce another neurotransmitter called melatonin, which makes us drowsy and tired.
The problem with our winters in Canada is that the days are unusually short. Even in the southern parts of Canada, we get less than 9 hours of daylight a day in December. Contrast this to more than 15 hours a day in June. The gap is larger the further north you go.
So while our bodies are telling us to do less and sleep more, we are trying to maintain the same schedule year round. Many of us find we have less energy, are more irritable, and are more prone to anxiety and depression in the winter months. No small wonder that these conditions are closely linked to low serotonin levels. In fact, some of the most effective treatments for depression and anxiety are specifically intended to boost serotonin levels in the brain.
The other thing we know we get from sunlight is vitamin D, so many of us have the added problem of suffering from a vitamin D deficiency in the winter months. Research hasn’t directly linked this deficiency to Seasonal Affective Disorder, but we do know that Vitamin D does affect mood and energy levels.
How can I counter the winter blues?
The good news is that the really short days are already behind us, and the daylight hours will continue to increase until June. If that thought is not enough to perk you up, here are few other suggestions from our pharmacists that may help you cope until Springtime:
Exercise, even if you don’t feel like it. At any time of year, exercise is an excellent way to reduce depression and anxiety symptoms. It releases endorphins that affect your mood in a positive way.
Get 15 minutes of direct sunlight. If you can manage it, this is how much sunlight you need to get the Vitamin D your body needs for the day. If not, consider taking a Vitamin D supplement.
Resist the urge to eat carbs. Too many carbohydrates will only make you more lethargic. Choose a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables.
Talk to your doctor. Depression and anxiety are serious issues. If your symptoms are ongoing, you may need therapy and/or medication, in addition to lifestyle changes, in order to feel better.