Low Mood During Winter

It's not uncommon to be affected by the changing of the seasons. Many people do feel more energized in the spring and summer months, and more like staying in and hibernating in the winter. Many low mood sufferers report feeling sad, low, tearful or hopeless. Other common symptoms include lack of energy, difficulties concentrating and feeling unsociable. If this sounds like you, then consider how long you’ve been feeling like this and whether your symptoms coincided with a change in the seasons. And if so, below are a number of things you can try to support yourself during the winter months.


When light hits the back of your eye messages go to the part of your brain that controls sleep, appetite, sex drive, temperature, mood and activity. If there isn't enough light, these functions can slow down. Some people seem to need a lot more light than others. If you work indoors, and don’t get outside much in your spare time, try and get outdoors each day, even for 15 minutes on your lunch break and make the most of weekends by getting out in nature whenever the weather permits. Ensuring your work area is light and airy and sitting near windows may also help. You could also consider investing in a light therapy box to mimic natural outdoor light. 


Low mood has been linked to low vitamin D levels during the winter months.  Fat soluble vitamin D is synthesised in the skin from cholesterol after exposure to UV rays. Between the winter months we cannot synthesise adequate amounts of vitamin D from the sun and it is now well known that many people are deficient. If you’re feeling low, getting your vitamin D levels checked, and supplementing where needed may help.


Research is highlighting the ability of our gut bacteria to influence our mood and cognition via the ‘microbiota-gut-brain axis’, which runs along nervous, immune and hormonal pathways. If you suffer with digestive symptoms, perhaps haven’t been eating as well as you should, have taken antibiotics or have been quite stressed, then it’s likely your gut microbiota could do with a little extra support. You could try regularly consuming traditionally fermented foods or taking a multi-strain probiotic supplement.


How often are you exercising at the moment? Studies have shown that exercise (particularly aerobic exercise), such as walking, jogging, swimming or cycling can be particularly beneficial, especially if done outdoors. If you are prone to low mood and don’t regularly exercise, this could be something to consider. It may be best avoiding exercise late in the evenings however, as this may delay the on-set of melatonin production (our sleep-hormone), which can interfere with circadian rhythms.   


If you need an excessive amount of sleep in the winter just to function properly, yet still often feel tired, this could be an indication that your body clock is out of sync. Following a set routine, where you wake, eat and go to bed at the same times every day may help. As will limiting your exposure to artificial light and electronic devices. One interesting study found that camping trips may also help re-set disrupted circadian rhythms.1 Researchers took a group of individuals with disordered sleep patterns on a week-long camping trip in the mountains. After one week of light exposure limited to just sunlight and campfires, everyone’s body clock shifted to match the natural light cycle, resulting in earlier bed and wake times.


While it’s not unusual to have a slightly larger appetite in the cold winter months, if you are consistently craving carbohydrate rich foods, this could be a sign of low mood. Instead of reaching for sugary snacks and refined carbohydrates such as white bread and pasta, focus on getting more protein and healthy fats in your diet. Not only will these foods keep you feeling fuller for longer and prevent blood sugar crashes, but amino acids (which are the building blocks of protein) are what we make many of our ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters from. 


The old saying a problem shared is a problem halved may have more truth than you think. You may find cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and other talking therapies extremely beneficial. Speak to your GP about your options. Even if you don’t want professional support, try talking to a close friend or family member to explain how you’re feeling. Just having someone offer a supportive ear, a cup of tea or a hug may help get you through particularly difficult days. There is no need to go through it alone.


1. Wright KP, McHill AW, Birks BR, Griffin BR, Rusterholz T, Chinoy ED. Entrainment of the Human Circadian Clock to the Natural Light-Dark Cycle. Curr Biol 2013; 23: 1554–8.