The long, hot days of summer are gone, replaced by cooler temperatures and longer nights.
If you live in a northern latitude, you know what it’s like when the days get shorter and the nights get longer. Earth is orbiting the sun and we are farther away in the winter months, meaning our days are much shorter in winter than summer.1
Besides handling the colder temperatures, snow and storms, some of us have trouble with that shift in the length of our days and nights. Here’s a look at how to adjust to the longer nights of winter ahead.
Why Do We Have Trouble With Longer Nights?
One of the reasons we dread the onset of winter is the short days and long nights, specifically the reduction in the amount of daylight we can enjoy. In fact, many people in northern latitudes suffer from what’s called seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which occurs as a reaction to reduced sunlight. Three‐quarters of those affected are women.2
Symptoms of SAD are described as lethargy, overeating, craving carbohydrates and sugar, and a depressed mood. Some wish to withdraw from social situations. In some people, SAD can become a depression, while others experience it as the “winter blues.”
SAD is said to occur in up to 10% of people in northern regions, compared to only 1.5% in southern Florida. One of the main causes is what’s called photoperiodism, which is the length of dark hours relative to light hours in a 24‐hour period. 2
What Can We Do To Adjust to Longer Nights?
If you think you’re suffering from the “winter blues,” or you simply don’t like the long, cold nights, there are a few steps you can take to help your mind and body adjust.
A number of recent studies have provided evidence that physical exercise may help with symptoms defined as SAD.3 Physical activity is often recommended as a form of treatment for depressive disorders in general.4
There are also benefits to exercising in a group setting, or with friends and family. That’s because physical activity enjoyed in a gym or community center increases the opportunity to interact with others. Social support for physical activity is related to your satisfaction with exercise as well as sticking to your routine.4
A study at the University of Helsinki looked at the effects of both exercise and light on mood. The conclusion was that bright light exposure was more effective than exercise in treating depressive symptoms. But don’t give up on staying active! The study also determined that aerobic exercise twice a week during wintertime was effective in treating depressive symptoms, and adding bright light exposure to exercise increased the benefit.5
A sun lamp may help, such as a desktop one for the office. Sun lamps are a form of bright-light therapy that can help with your winter mood.6
Another option is to get outside, a healthful practice all year long. Even when it’s cold, if you can get into some afternoon sunshine, you will appreciate the natural light and your body will appreciate the Vitamin D. In particular, if you go to work in the dark and come home in the dark, a walk around the block at lunchtime is a self-care routine that will do wonders. Being in and around nature has proven benefits for mood and focus.7
If your doctor suggests it, you may also want to consider a Vitamin D supplement.
Vitamin D is called the “sunshine vitamin,” since our body produces it when our skin is exposed to sunlight. A supplement may help in cold weather, when we aren’t outside enough to generate our own Vitamin D naturally. 8 Check with your doctor before starting a supplement.
That tired feeling that comes with longer nights may be a sign that your body needs more rest. Create a bedtime routine that allows you to get a good night’s sleep, and you will wake energized—and perhaps ready for a morning exercise regimen.
A lack of rest will make your mood even worse. Women are more likely to report insomnia in every age group, and sleep disturbances are powerful risk factors for the development of depression.9 There’s nothing to feel guilty about if you find you’re sleeping more during the winter. Allow yourself a nap on the weekend and some quieter, restful evenings.
See A Doctor
If your winter blues feel worse than a bit of sadness, seek medical attention at once. Depression should not be ignored and can be treated. Use our Physician Finder to find a doctor near you who can help.
If you’re simply feeling lethargic, you’re eating more, or you miss the sunshine, then try a few of the tips we’ve provided to adjust to the longer nights of autumn and winter. Before long, spring will be in the air again.