Winter Blues: Symptoms, Causes, and Functional Remedies

Perhaps during the darker days, a sense of gloominess and fatigue overtakes you, and you lose interest in activities you’ve once enjoyed. Yet, when the cold weather warms up, these depressive symptoms vanish, and you feel like your usual self again. If that’s the case, you might have winter blues. 

Winter blues is a seasonal form of depression that typically occurs in late fall and winter (i.e., November to February) when the daylight hours are the shortest.

Even though this seasonal depression goes away when spring arrives, it still negatively affects your mental wellness during the winter months. Just like major depression, winter blues may also trigger suicidal thoughts, prompting the need for immediate medical attention.

If you or a loved one struggle with this type of depression, read on to find out how a mix of conventional and functional remedies helps improve your mental health.

Please note: If you or someone you know have suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 to talk to a trained counselor. The helpline provides free, confidential counseling services 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

What Are Winter Blues?

The medical definition of winter blues is seasonal affective disorder (SAD) [1]. Unlike major depression, SAD is characterized by a seasonal pattern — it usually appears in the winter months — and goes away at the end of the cold season. Some people may experience SAD in the summer months instead, though this is uncommon.

If you’ve had poor mental health every winter (or summer) for two years or more, you’re likely dealing with seasonal affective disorder.

What Are the Symptoms of Winter Blues?

The symptoms of SAD are different for winter-related and summer-related conditions [2].

Winter-related SAD symptoms may include:

  • A constant, overwhelming sense of sadness
  • Physical and mental fatigue
  • Increased sleepiness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • A loss of interest in personal hobbies
  • Increased cravings for carbohydrates and sugars
  • Possible weight gain
  • Social isolation
  • Thoughts of hopelessness, self-injury, and/or suicide

Summer-related SAD symptoms include:

  • Difficulty falling asleep and/or poor sleep quality
  • Reduced appetite accompanied by weight loss
  • Anxiety, irritability, and/or restlessness

Since these symptoms can affect your daily life and work productivity (and possibly even your safety), be proactive in addressing SAD. For winter blues, simple steps such as going outside for sun exposure, skipping afternoon naps, and eating healthily can help.

If you need further support in managing your symptoms, consider reaching out to a functional doctor, like the team at Austin Functional Medicine.

Who Is at Risk of Winter Blues?

Winter blues are associated with less sunlight, which means people in the northern areas of the United States are more likely to experience SAD than those in the South. To illustrate, only 1% of Sarasota residents in Florida experience SAD as compared to 9% of the population in Fairbanks, Alaska [3].

Aside from living further away from the equator, those at a higher risk of SAD are [4]:

  • Those with a family history of depressive disorders, including major depression and bipolar disorder
  • The female gender
  • Those working in dark environments like windowless offices and night shifts
  • Those with poor gut health

The Link Between Sun Exposure and Winter Blues

Reduced sun exposure is one of the main causes of winter blues. During the winter months, individuals with limited access to sunlight fail to produce enough vitamin D in their bodies [5].

Vitamin D is needed to produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates your mood, sleep, appetite, and energy levels [6]. Insufficient vitamin D reduces your serotonin levels, resulting in negative mood shifts, lethargy, and unhealthy food cravings.

Exposure to less sunlight also triggers melatonin overproduction and disrupts your circadian rhythm [7] — the sleep-wake cycle that your body’s internal clock governs.

Darker days, due to late sunrises, early sunsets, and increased cloud cover, signal to the pineal gland in your brain to release more melatonin than needed. This increases sleepiness and fatigue [8, 9], making sleeping in and daytime napping more common.

How Gut Health Relates To Winter Blues

Poor gut health is another likely cause of winter depression, thanks to the gut-brain connection [10]. This is especially relevant during the festive season when holiday feasting begins and you’re less inclined to follow a healthy diet.

Inflammatory foods, like sugar [11] and alcohol [12], can feed harmful microorganisms and cause gut dysbiosis, inciting systemic inflammation. Gluten-based products, for those who are gluten sensitive, promote zonulin production [13] and increase intestinal permeability, a hallmark of leaky gut syndrome.

Many gastrointestinal disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), IBD, and leaky gut syndrome, are associated with depression, chronic fatigue, and anxiety [14, 15, 16, 17]. These symptoms can worsen during the winter months.

7 Treatment Options for Winter Blues

Instead of letting winter blues run their course, be proactive about managing these depressive symptoms and start implementing your treatment plan in the fall. Besides conventional treatment options — antidepressants, sun lamp therapy, vitamin D and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) — functional medicine also recommends an anti-inflammatory diet, gut-healing probiotics, outdoor physical activity, and techniques to manage your circadian clock.

1. Sun Lamp Therapy

Short daylight hours on winter days lead to less sunlight, causing vitamin D deficiency, and by extension, insufficient serotonin synthesis. Prolonged darkness also induces melatonin overproduction, making you more tired than usual.

Thankfully, lightboxes (also called sun lamps) are a viable replacement for natural light. Research shows that light therapy (or phototherapy) improves depressive symptoms of SAD [18, 19, 20]. For optimal results, bask in the artificial light upon waking up.

A lightbox that emits 10,000 lux of bright light (white or blue) usually works best. If you aren’t sure which lightbox is right for you, ask your functional doctor for recommendations.

2. Anti-Inflammatory Diet

An anti-inflammatory diet is an effective first-line treatment option in improving your gut health and reducing inflammation that affects your brain health.

The Paleo diet is a good starting point to reduce gut inflammation and improve depressive symptoms [21, 22]. It mainly consists of whole foods — fresh vegetables, lean meat, and healthy fats — while excluding dairy products, processed carbohydrates, and sugar.

3. Manage Your Circadian Rhythm

Managing your circadian rhythm also helps reduce the severity and duration of winter blues. Practice good sleeping habits, such as going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. Avoid sleep-ins and afternoon naps to regulate your body’s internal clock.

4. Go Outside for Exercise and Sunlight

Take advantage of good weather whenever possible, and go outside to exercise and bask in whatever amount of sun is available. Regular physical activity (at least 30 minutes every day) addresses various types of depression [23], including SAD. In fact, a combination of exercise and antidepressants can improve symptoms of depression more than medication alone [24].

5. Probiotics

Supplementing with probiotics may help alleviate seasonal depression, too.

One meta-analysis of 10 clinical trials involving 1,349 participants highlights that probiotics significantly improved mild to moderate depressive symptoms [25]. Another systematic review and meta-analysis also support the relationship of probiotics with reduced depression [26].

For best results, try a triple probiotic therapy consisting of:

  • Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria blends
  • Saccharomyces boulardii (a beneficial yeast)
  • Soil-based probiotics (usually Bacillus species)

If you need help in choosing probiotic supplements, consult your functional doctor.

6. Vitamin D Supplements

Another natural therapy to try is vitamin D supplements. Research shows that vitamin D supplementation is associated with reduced SAD depressive symptoms [27]. Moreover, it may prevent the onset of winter blues when taken early in the season (i.e., early fall) [28].

The optimal level of vitamin D supplementation is 5000-6000 units per day, depending on your age, weight, diet, area of residence (how much sunlight you are getting), and skin tone. Consult your functional doctor for help in personalizing your vitamin D dosage.

7. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Mental health professionals often recommend cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for addressing different forms of depression, including SAD.

CBT promotes healthy behavioral changes, such as:

  • Reframing negative thoughts into positive ones through journaling and compassionate self-talk
  • Participation in socializing activities like community volunteering
  • Practicing relaxation techniques such as meditation and yoga

At present, the medical literature is undecided on the effectiveness of CBT compared to other treatment options. One scientific article highlights that CBT reduces depressive symptoms more than light therapy with the added benefit of a lower recurrence rate [29]. But another recent study countered that light therapy promotes SAD remission more quickly than CBT [30].

Try CBT in conjunction with other treatment options to find out which remedy (or remedies) works best for you.

While not exactly the same as CBT, a health coach can provide personal support through the winter months and help you to optimize your plan to fight the winter blues.

Functional Remedies for Your Winter Blues

It’s not all doom and gloom during the shorter days of the year. There are scientifically proven ways to reduce the severity of SAD symptoms to the point of remission.

Many of the treatment options listed above are easy to implement in your daily life. Start with light therapy, an anti-inflammatory diet, vitamin D, and other healthy lifestyle changes to see if your depressive symptoms improve. If you have any symptoms of poor digestive health, probiotics can also be very helpful.

If symptoms persist, a functional doctor or health coach can help you develop a customized plan to stay healthy during the winter months. At Austin Functional Medicine, we work closely with you to identify the best treatment plan for your winter blues. Book an appointment with us today to learn more.

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