Feeling Sad This Winter? It Could Be More Than the Blues

January 10, 2020

During the winter months, it’s normal to feel a little blue from time to time. But for some people, the winter blues can turn into something more serious. As the days grow shorter and temps get colder, these individuals notice symptoms such as anxiety, mood swings, and loss of appetite. The cause can be a type of depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which can make winter seem like the longest, gloomiest season of all.

“SAD is recognized as a disease, and it looks like major depression in some people,” says Austin Williams, MD, a family physician with Kettering Health Network. “The main difference between these conditions is that SAD typically occurs during the winter months, and affects people who don’t necessarily experience depressive symptoms at other times of the year.”

Experts aren’t sure why winter is such a problem for some people, but Dr. Williams says that lack of sunlight is a factor. A decrease in sunlight can:

  • Disrupt our sleep/wake cycles, leading to poor sleep
  • Lower levels of serotonin in the brain, a feel-good chemical that affects mood
  • Lower Vitamin D levels, which can make us feel more tired than usual

People who live further from the equator are at higher risk for SAD, and women are two to three times more likely to feel depressed in winter compared to men.

It may be time to talk to your doctor

Dr. Williams encourages people to talk to their doctor if they are experiencing symptoms of SAD, which can include:

  • Greater than usual anxiety, sadness, loss of interest in normal activities, and mood swings
  • Excess sleepiness, difficulty sleeping
  • Feelings of failure or a desire to harm yourself
  • Appetite changes, significant weight gain, or weight loss
  • Irritability or social isolation

Your doctor will take time to talk with you about your symptoms, and may ask you to complete a questionnaire to better understand your concerns. Since some symptoms of SAD mimic those of Vitamin D deficiency or an overactive thyroid, your doctor may order a blood test to see if one of these problems could be causing your symptoms.

Healthy habits, medical care will help

Anti-depressant medication can be a good option, especially if symptoms are severe or affecting you three or more days a week. Dr. Williams also recommends:

  • Exercise. Even a brief walk can increase mood-boosting brain chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. If you exercise outside, you’ll get the added benefit of Vitamin D from the sun’s rays, which can help your mood as well. Read these cold-weather exercising tips before heading outside.
  • Practice good sleep habits to reset your body’s natural rhythms. This can include going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. Avoiding computer and phone screens two hours before bedtime can help, too. Artificial lighting—especially the “blue” light that comes from many electronic devices—suppresses melatonin production, making it more difficult to wind down. Here are some tips for a good night’s sleep.
  • Light therapy. Light therapy boxes emit outdoor light, which can help regulate your body's sleep/wake schedule and its natural release of the hormones that help you feel energized. They’re available online and in stores, usually for about $50.
  • Counseling. SAD can make even the daily problems of life seem overwhelming. A trained counselor can help you identify and change negative thought patterns, manage your stress, and improve your outlook.


“Whenever patients share a concern about their mental health, I make a point to thank them,” Dr. Williams says. “It’s difficult to reach out to someone for help. There’s an element of bravery there—but it’s also the first step toward feeling better.”

If you are feeling blue or depressed, a Kettering Health Network primary care provider can help. To find one near you, click here.