For many, the extra hour of sleep received as clocks fell back early Sunday morning is the only perk of daylight saving time ending.
In addition to colder temperatures, winter brings shorter daylight hours and mental health challenges for millions of Americans. Dr. Michelle DiBlasi, chief of inpatient psychiatry at Tufts Medical Center, said that about 5 percent of Americans are affected by seasonal affective disorder and millions more experience the effects of winter in myriad unpleasant ways, including changes in sleep and appetite, trouble focusing, and a loss of interest in activities they typically enjoy.
While it may feel like getting the winter blues is inevitable, DiBlasi and other experts say there are ways to address these mood changes and maintain a sense of normalcy even as days get shorter and temperatures drop.
Why do our moods change during the fall and winter?
DiBlasi said decreased exposure to sunlight lowers our active levels of serotonin — a neurotransmitter that creates a long-lasting feeling of happiness or well-being — which makes us feel sadder. Additionally, the brain produces more melatonin — a compound that helps with sleep — when it’s dark, explaining why we often feel sleepier during months with fewer daylight hours, she said.
Dr. Sanford Auerbach, an associate professor of neurology at Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine, studies sleep and mood disorders, which he said are closely linked. Auerbach said time changes like daylight saving can also affect our circadian rhythms: internal clocks that govern sleep. Each person’s circadian rhythm is closely intertwined with their mood, meaning that as sleep schedules change, moods can too, Auerbach said.
“[Mood changes] can start as early as October and increase throughout the winter,” he said. “Changing clocks can also make it difficult because the average person probably spends a lot more time in the dark now than we did a week ago.”
How can I keep the blues at bay?
DiBlasi urged people to be extra mindful of their moods and feelings during the winter. If you notice yourself feeling down, she suggested getting a good sleep at night and staying active during the day. DiBlasi also said balanced meals, self-care, and social activity are key elements of lasting happiness and motivation during the winter.
“When people start to isolate themselves, which happens more in the winter, people can start to feel more down and lonely,” DiBlasi said. “The biggest key is staying socially connected and getting a full night’s rest.”
What role does sleep play?
Dr. Rebecca Robbins, who works in the division of sleep and circadian disorders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said a consistent sleep schedule is the backbone of a consistent mood. Robbins said only a third of Americans get an adequate amount of sleep — between seven and eight hours a night — which can be particularly detrimental in the winter.
“It’s easy to think, ‘I’ll learn how to operate and get by on less sleep,’ and we can trick ourselves into thinking that’s magically adding hours back into the day, but it comes at a cost,” she said.
Robbins said multiple nights without adequate sleep can lead to “sleep debt,” resulting in tiredness and decreased motivation. To combat this, she suggested prioritizing a full night of sleep but resisting the temptation to hit “snooze” in the morning, which can make it difficult for the body to shift into gear.
To get a good night’s sleep, Auerbach recommended regular exercise and limited consumption of caffeine or alcohol before bed. He also said it’s easier to fall asleep in a relaxing environment free of computer screens or bright lights, and spending time in a calm and cozy place before bedtime can make falling asleep easier.
What role does sunlight play?
Sunlight, especially morning light, helps “turn on the awake part of our circadian rhythm” as the body stops producing melatonin, Robbins said. Morning light is vital in the winter when sunlight is scarce, which is why it’s essential to get out of bed right away on winter mornings, Robbins said.
“Even if it’s just making a coffee or checking emails at your desk, all of those cues of getting out of bed are important to switching your circadian rhythm to that ‘on’ phase,” she said.
Auerbach emphasized that most office buildings “are not as bright as we think they are” and said prioritizing outside time is key in regulating your mood and sleep schedule.
I work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. How can I get sunlight?
All three experts recommended getting outside as much as possible before and during work. For those commuting via bus or train, Robbins suggested getting on or off one stop early to spend some time walking outdoors. Even a few minutes in the sunlight can positively affect your overall mood, she said.
“Instead of reaching for another coffee, go for a walking meeting or take a phone call instead of doing a Zoom,” Robbins said. “Get outside into the natural air and sunlight instead of caffeine.”
Should I visit a health care professional?
If you experience deep depression or suicidal thoughts, DiBlasi and Auerbach recommend you contact your primary care doctor, psychiatrist, or therapist. Doctors may connect you with a mental health professional or prescribe medication or LED lamps. You should call the suicide hotline — 988 — or 911 in the case of emergency.