Contributor: Phoebe Yin
For four to six percent of people, the transition from fall to winter causes a type of depression known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. For the rest of us who aren’t exactly fans of winter, the changing of the seasons can still lead to a shift in mood, even if it’s not as extreme.
Some are less bothered by the winter months, but there are scientific explanations for why many feel the way that they do as soon as fall is over. Common “symptoms” of seasonal mood shifts include feeling tired or less social, craving carbs and protein, and sleeping more or less than usual. These symptoms may not seem to be linked to a temperature drop and some snow, but there are connections, and luckily, some ways to make the next few months a little easier.
Most university students struggle to maintain a good sleep schedule, but our body’s circadian clock lets us know when we’re tired anyway. This “clock” is based on light, and the reduced hours of sunlight in the winter interferes with our circadian rhythm. This can have an affect on many systems in the human body, including those responsible for hormone release, metabolism, and mood. As a result, Professor Roecklein at the University of Pittsburgh claims that seasonal mood shifts are a “biological response to changing light levels” and not something we can easily control.
When the sun sets before dinnertime and the nights are long, melatonin, a hormone that prepares your body for sleep, is produced for a longer period of time. This not only makes you more tired and eager to get to bed, but actually decreases your serotonin levels as well. Serotonin is a key hormone involved in promoting happiness, and it’s also a precursor involved in the production of melatonin. This means that when more melatonin is produced, serotonin is used up, and your mood changes. In addition, since the sun is a very important source of vitamin D, which gives you energy, there’s no denying that fewer hours of sunlight makes people tired more often.
In colder conditions, your body needs to consume more calories to maintain its optimal temperature. Foods that are rich in calories are also rich in carbohydrates and proteins, so it’s only natural to crave those foods as opposed to something that cools you down, like fruits or leafy vegetables. Although eating your feelings might help with seasonal mood changes, certain foods will benefit you more than others. Foods like meat, dairy, leafy vegetables, and beans are known to increase serotonin production, which helps since more of your serotonin is being converted to melatonin than usual.
To alleviate the typical “winter blues” that aren’t due to seasonal depression, doctors and psychologists recommend taking advantage of the sunlight by braving the cold and going outside for a few hours. To make waking up less of a struggle, open the blinds early or invest in a sun lamp that stimulates the sunrise in the morning (these are often used to alleviate SAD symptoms as well). No matter what, these are chemical changes happening to your body, so remember to take it easy and get the rest your body wants.