Ever feel like nothing can drag you out of your warm, cozy bed on a dreary winter morning? During colder months, our moods seem to fall as fast as the temperature because the sun is hidden behind clouds and the days are much too short. Welcome to the winter blues club.

“The ‘winter blues,’ a milder version of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), impact a large part of the population due to how our biological clocks react to our environment,” said David Earnest, Ph.D., a circadian rhythms (24-hour cycles that tell our bodies when to sleep and regulate many physiological processes) expert at the Texas A&M College of Medicine. “In northern locations, the days become almost unbearably short and the weather turns dark and gloomy. When our bodies are not exposed to enough natural sunlight it throws off the synchronization of our biological clocks.”

The winter blues are characterized by feelings of lethargy, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, social withdrawal, and in some cases, weight gain. Depending on the severity of the symptoms, it could morph into full-blown SAD or another severe form of depression. “The severity of symptoms will vary based on the individual and how they respond to their environment,” Earnest said.

Luckily, it’s often pretty easy to banish the winter blues from your life. Here are a few scientifically proven ways to boost your mood and lift your spirits when the days are dull and gray.

Soak up as much sunlight as possible

The light/dark environment of our day can affect our moods, our energy levels and even the amount and quality of our sleep. “The biggest factor that triggers the winter blues and seasonal affective disorder is not getting the amount of sunlight your body needs,” Earnest said. “In the winter, we often go to work in the dark and return home in the dark. It takes a high intensity of light to synchronize our biological clocks and in the winter we just aren’t getting enough of it.”

Earnest stressed the best way to combat the winter blues it to spend time outside in the sun as much as possible. “Your best option to lessen symptoms is to try and get outside during the day and expose yourself to natural sunlight,” he said. “Most often, this will override the problem. As the days become longer and winter fades into spring the winter blues will normally resolve.”

Try bright light therapy

According to Earnest—if you live in an unforgiving winter climate where the sun is absent for weeks, or, months at a time—bright light therapy may be your best treatment option. During bright light therapy, a patient sits in front of an artificial, bright light bank for a few hours at the same time every day—usually in the morning or early evening. In doing so, a patient’s body clock will gain exposure to the amount of light needed to synchronize with their environment.

“This type of therapy is normally recommended for those who are experiencing severe symptoms of SAD and for people who live in northern climates where the winter months are extremely gloomy and cloudy,” he said.

Take your vitamins

With fewer hours of sunlight, our vitamin D levels decline during winter months. Research has shown a lack of vitamin D could be behind the feelings of depression and anxiety prolonged during winter months. Surprisingly, another vitamin which may improve your winter mood is melatonin. Melatonin is the hormone known for regulating the sleep cycle, and research shows taking a melatonin supplement can relieve the doldrums of winter depression.

Don’t be enticed by your couch

Icy days were meant for Netflix and chill, but by resisting the temptation of your couch you can energize your body and your brain. Exercise boosts feelings of positivity and ups your dopamine levels (the feel-good hormone of the brain). Moving your body for at least 30 minutes may stave off seasonal affective disorder feelings and get you outside into much-needed sunlight.

Talk to your health care provider

“Sometimes it’s hard for a patient to recognize the winter blues or symptoms of SAD—especially if you’ve always lived in a northern climate and never travelled to more temperate ones,” Earnest said. “It’s always best to speak with your physician about any major changes in mood or affect so you can take full advantage of all treatment options available to you.”

— Lauren Thompson

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