Understanding the Winter Blues

Canadian airline companies offer direct flights to sunnier parts of the world on a daily basis. When winter comes, what are we running from? It turns out there may be a biological explanation for our winter escapism and it begins with the brain.

Winter depression is a mood disorder that comes on in the fall or winter and resolves in spring. It is similar to regular depression except for its seasonal nature. Feeling blue in the winter is common, but with winter depression, the symptoms are more severe. Regular everyday life becomes difficult.

People suffering from winter depression may have trouble experiencing pleasure. They may also sleep too much. There can be weight gain and increased cravings for foods high in carbohydrates (like bread, pasta or rice). Concentrating can be difficult. Guilt, restlessness and suicidal thoughts are other possible symptoms. If you are a female, you are more at risk; 80% of people who have winter depression are female.

In his book “Everybody Lies,” Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a data scientist, explains the link between winter and mood. He sought correlations between a region’s Google searches for the word “depression” and other factors, such as education levels, church attendance and economic conditions. He found that living in a winter climate showed the strongest association. The word “depression” was googled 40% more often by people living in winter climates compared with those living in warmer regions.


Though the cause of winter depression is not completely understood, the limited daylight and circadian rhythms likely play a role. In Latin, circa means “around” and diēm means “day.” Most living organisms have a circadian rhythm, a 24-hour internal clock, on which sunlight has a significant impact.

I grew up on a farm with laying hens but they didn’t lay eggs in the winter. It wasn’t the cold weather that caused this change; rather, lower periods of sunlight signaled their brains to put the brakes on egg-laying. On the other hand, we had plenty of eggs to eat in the summer. The extra sunlight sent messages to the birds’ brains to restart reproduction.

Human biology is affected by daylight, too. Shorter days in the winter have been linked to feelings of depression. You may have heard of melatonin. It’s used as an over-the-counter sleep aid, but it’s also a hormone produced naturally in our bodies. When light levels are low at night, the brain produces more melatonin to help us fall asleep. In winter, many mammals produce melatonin in higher amounts in response to the shorter days. In some species, this helps to induce hibernation.

With our dark winters, people with winter depression might produce melatonin in such excess that they are generating a response similar to hibernation. Though gaining weight and extra sleep are good for the winter bear, these changes are not so helpful for humans.

Serotonin is another piece of the winter depression puzzle. This chemical helps us to feel happy. Studies show that people with winter depression have lower serotonin activity, which worsens mood. When people with winter depression were treated with bright light therapy, the serotonin activity increased to normal levels and their depression improved.

Low levels of Vitamin D might play a role in winter depression, but the studies are still inconclusive. Genetics are also a factor.


Winter depression can be treated in the same way as regular depression. Counseling and medications can help. Light therapy is another option, and has been found to work best in the morning. A dawn-simulating lamp is one that gradually turns on before sunrise. It can be set as an alarm that turns on automatically before you wake up. Speak to your doctor before starting these treatments because high-intensity light is not a safe option for everyone. For instance, some medications can cause the skin to be extra sensitive to light.

Other positive things you can do for your mental health include regular exercise, sleeping enough to feel rested, waking up at the same time each day, avoiding too much caffeine and alcohol, and taking walks outdoors in the fresh air. When speaking with my mother about the winter blues, she offered her universal antidote. Stay busy as hell. I thought that was particularly good advice.


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