The Spectrum of Low Mood in Winter
Low mood in the winter occurs on a spectrum: At one end of the spectrum are people who simply feel like cocooning up indoors during the winter, forgoing exercise and reducing time spent on social activities. On the other end of the spectrum are people whose moods take a nosedive in the winter, leading to feelings of fatigue, carbohydrate cravings, and possibly even weight gain. Research indicates that low mood and melancholy in the winter affect approximately six percent of the U.S. population.1
While the exact causes of seasonal low mood are uncertain, there are several hypotheses as to why this phenomenon occurs. One theory is that seasonal variations in light exposure alter neurotransmitter signaling in our brains, affecting our experience of emotions and mood. A second hypothesis is that shorter winter days shift our circadian rhythms, broadly shifting our internal biology and physiological pathways that regulate mood.
Whatever the underlying reasons, a low mood can make the winter a real drag. Fortunately, suffering is not inevitable! There are several simple ways you can avoid the winter blues and support a positive mood all winter long.
6 Ways to Support Your Mood this Winter
Bright light exposure
Research indicates that there is a critical link between photoreceptors, specialized cells that detect light in the eyes, and the brain that may explain why the dark days of winter adversely impact our moods.2,3 The implications of this research are that regularly exposing your eyes to bright light throughout the winter may support a resilient, positive mood.
Bright light devices are tabletop units that deliver a blast of bright (but safe) light to your eyes. They have been found in numerous studies to support a healthy mood throughout the winter months.4 Experts generally recommend that people use a bright light device either between 6 and 8 am or immediately upon waking throughout the winter to experience the greatest benefits for energy and mood. If you are not ready to purchase a bright light device, you can also support your mood by taking a walk outdoors at lunch to get natural bright light exposure and by spending time outdoors on the weekends.
It is unclear as to how exactly bright light supports a positive mood in the winter. It may work by pushing your circadian rhythm forward in the day so that you naturally wake up earlier and go to bed earlier; this “phase shift” has been linked to an improved mood. However, it may also work through a noncircadian, mood-supporting mechanism that has yet to be clearly delineated.5
Connect with Nature
Short, chilly days make many people want to curl up indoors all winter long. However, excessive indoor time won’t do your mood any favors; in fact, getting outside and connecting with nature may be the key for supporting a resilient mood throughout the winter months.
Spending time in nature has repeatedly been found in the scientific literature to decrease negative mood and boost levels of self-reported wellbeing, happiness, and life satisfaction.6,7
No matter where you live, there are ways for you to get outside and enjoy nature throughout the winter. If you live in flatlands, such as the Midwest, try cross-country skiing or taking regular walks at a nearby park or forest preserve. If you live in a snowy and mountainous area (like us here in Colorado!), spend at least ½ a day outside every weekend. Our personal favorite winter activities here in Colorado are skiing and snowshoeing! You’ll be surprised at how quickly a brisk bout of nature time can boost your mood!
Move Your Body
While research on exercise specifically for low mood in the winter is limited, abundant evidence indicates the efficacy of exercise for supporting mental wellbeing. Aerobic exercise may alleviate seasonal dips in mood by supporting a healthy circadian rhythm, increasing the neuroplasticity-enhancing compounds BDNF and VEGF, and by increasing levels of endocannabinoids, which promote a positive mood.8
Research suggests that the optimal duration of exercise for alleviating a low mood is 30-40 minutes per session 3-4 times a week.9 While exercising outside is excellent, a community or home gym is a good option if your weekday time for outdoor exercise is limited.
Block Blue Light at Night
Because seasonal dips in mood may be caused by alterations in our circadian rhythms, we must take steps to support healthy biological rhythms during the winter. Exposure to blue light at night from glowing LED screens, such as those emitted from our smartphones and computers, inhibits melatonin production, altering our sleep cycles and circadian rhythms. An altered sleep cycle and circadian rhythm can, in turn, worsen mood and mental health.10 Blocking blue light at night preserves melatonin production and optimizes your circadian rhythm, and may therefore support a buoyant mood.
To support your circadian rhythm this winter, consider purchasing the Iris app to control the blue light emitted from your computer screen. You may also want to purchase a pair of blue-light-blocking glasses to wear 1-2 hours before bed; these glasses will reduce your exposure to blue light from artificial lights, digital devices, and outdoor lights.
Several lines of evidence suggest that vitamin D supplementation may help people with sad, melancholy moods in the winter.11,12 Vitamin D supports the release of nerve growth factor (NGF) and brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), signaling molecules that enhance neuroplasticity and support mental and emotional wellbeing. Multiple studies indicate the benefits of vitamin D supplementation on mental wellbeing.13
We recommend that you get your vitamin D level tested before supplementing, and if supplementation is needed, choose a highly bioavailable form of the vitamin. Nanoliposomal vitamin D formulations have been found to significantly enhance the bioavailability of this vital nutrient.14,15
Traditional cultures, including native peoples of Russia and Scandinavian countries, have thrived for millennia in climates where winters are notoriously long and dark. One of the reasons why these groups may have managed so well is due to their use of adaptogens - botanicals that aid the body in reacting to or recovering from both short-term and long-term stressors, including long winters.
Native peoples of Siberia have long relied on an adaptogen called Rhodiola rosea for its stamina-enhancing properties. Modern-day research indicates that this botanical also aids with stress relief and supports a balanced, resilient mood.16 Interestingly, one randomized controlled trial found that Rhodiola demonstrated comparable mental health benefits compared to sertraline (aka Zoloft), but with fewer side effects.17 Rhodiola may exert its mood-supporting properties by stimulating norepinephrine, serotonin, dopamine, and acetylcholine receptors.
Schisandra is a deciduous woody vine native to northern China and Russia that produces bright red berries with adaptogenic properties. Schisandra berries have traditionally been used to increase resilience to stress, and more recently, have been discovered to offer mood-boosting benefits.18
Ashwagandha is a time-honored member of the Ayurvedic botanical medicine compendium. It elegantly balances sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system activity, offering mood-enhancing and anti-stress benefits.19,20
Astragalus has been used for thousands of years in both Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic medicine for its immune-supporting and longevity benefits. Research indicates that extracts of astragalus protect the brain against stress-induced cognitive deficits, and may thereby help support cognitive health.21
There’s no need to drag through the winter months with a low, glum mood. By engaging in regular exercise, supporting your body with bright light, spending time in nature, and supplementing with vitamin D and adaptogens, you can enjoy the winter months in good spirits.
- Targum SD, Rosenthal N. Seasonal affective disorder. Psychiatry (Edgmont). 2008; 5(5): 31-33.
- Hamilton J. Scientists find a brain circuit that could explain seasonal depression. NPR. 21 December 2018. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/12/21/678342879/scientists-find-a-brain-circuit-that-could-explain-seasonal-depression.
- Ospri LL, et al. Mood, the circadian system, and melanopsin retinal ganglion cells. Annu Rev Neurosci. 2017; 40: 539-556.
- Lewy AJ, et al. Morning vs evening light treatment of patients with winter depression. JAMA Psychiatry. 1998. 55(10): 890-896.
- Wirz-Justice A, et al. Light therapy in seasonal affective disorder is independent of time of day or circadian phase. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1993. 50(12): 929-937.
- Shanahan DF, et al. Health benefits from nature experiences depend on dose. Sci Rep. 2016; 6: 28551.
- Houlden V. The relationship between greenspace and the mental wellbeing of adults: A systematic review. PLoS One. 2018; 13(9): e0203000.
- Peiser B. Seasonal affective disorder and exercise treatment: a review. Biol Rhythm Res. 2009; 40(1): 85-97.
- Tasci G, et al. Effect of exercise on therapeutic response in depression treatment. Psychiat Clin Psych. 2019; 29(2): 137-143.
- Bedrosian TA, Nelson RJ. Timing of light exposure affects mood and brain circuits. Transl Psychiatry. 2017. 7(1): e1017.
- Melrose S. Seasonal affective disorder: An overview of assessment and treatment approaches. Depress Res Treat. 2015; 2015: 178564.
- Anjum I, et al. The role of vitamin D in brain health: A mini literature review. Cureus. 2018; 10(7): e2960.
- Penckofer S, et al. Vitamin D and depression: Where is all the sunshine? Issues Ment Health Nurs. 2010; 31(6): 385-393.
- Maurya VK, Aggarwal M. Fabrication of nano-structured lipid carrier for encapsulation of vitamin D3 for fortification of 'Lassi'; A milk based beverage. J Steroid Biochem Mol Biol. 2019; 193: 105429.
- Maurya VK, Bashir K, Aggarwal M. Vitamin D microencapsulation and fortification: Trends and technologies. J Steroid Biochem Mol Biol. 2019; 196: 105489.
- Amsterdam JD, Panossian AG. Rhodiola rosea L. as a putative botanical antidepressant. Phytomedicine. 2016; 23(7): 770-783.
- Mao JJ, et al. Rhodiola rosea versus sertraline for major depressive disorder: A randomized placebo-controlled trial. Phytomedicine. 2015; 22(3): 394-399.
- Yan T, et al. Antidepressant-like effects and cognitive enhancement of Schisandra chinensis in chronic unpredictable mild stress mice and its related mechanism. Sci Rep. 2017; 7: 6903.
- Chandrasekar K, et al. A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of Ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults. Indian J Psychol Med. 2012; 34(3): 255-262.
- Lopresti AL, et al. An investigation into the stress-relieving and pharmacological actions of an ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) extract: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Medicine. 2019; 98(37): e17186.
- Li WZ, et al. Protective effect of extract of Astragalus on learning and memory impairments and neurons apoptosis induced by glucocorticoids in 12‐month male mice. Anat Record. 2011; 294(6): 1003-1014.