Surviving Shorter Days with Less Sunlight in Winter

Even if you live in sunny Florida or Arizona, the winter brings fewer hours of sunlight and probably more precipitation, whether it’s snow, ice, rain, or some mix of the three! Medical science has proven that receiving less sunlight affects our body’s circadian rhythm—that internal clock directing particular brain wave activity and hormone production, like serotonin. This change in mood-related chemicals can contribute to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), with symptoms that include lethargy, low mood, excessive tiredness, lack of motivation, and weight gain.

Regardless of where you live, we have a game plan for you to stay energized, optimistic, and in a healthier state of mind this winter.


Exercise might not be the first item you want to see listed, but the truth is regular exercise—especially first thing in the morning or outside during daylight hours—has proven to be one of the best combatants against seasonal depression. Exercise releases endorphins (which boost your mood), burns extra calories consumed during holiday celebrations, and activates the metabolic pathways that replenish neurotransmitters, allowing your brain to better communicate with your body.

Consider going for a 30-minute, or two 15-minute walks each day. A slight elevation in heartrate and stretching muscles can do wonders for your outlook. Double the benefits by getting outside to soak up as much natural light as possible.

Working out in the morning, particularly right around sunrise, can help keep your circadian rhythm on point and it will energize you for the day ahead.

Go outside

The Swedish saying, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes,” should be taken to heart. Spending time outdoors each day can change your perspective on the day, refresh your mind and spirit, stretch cramped muscles, show you different views to contemplate when cabin fever feels imminent, give your mind space to wander, and remind you to take some deep breaths!

Eat light for dinner

To combat feeling drowsy, sleepy, and unmotivated all evening and to encourage better sleep, eat smaller, lighter meals for dinner. Eating too much, too late (after 8pm), or carb-heavy meals can make it harder to fall asleep or be productive after dinner. A double whammy!

For optimal levels of energy throughout the day, start with a well-rounded breakfast that will keep you full until lunch—think plenty of protein, good fats, and complex carbs—a light lunch, and then an even lighter dinner with lots of veggies. Throughout your meals, include mood-boosting foods: pumpkin seeds, squash, cinnamon, and foods rich in vitamin D, like cod liver oil, swordfish, salmon, tuna, milk, yogurt, sardines, eggs, and cereals fortified with vitamin D.

Get to bed early for plenty of sleep

Quality sleep makes for quality waking hours, even if there’s less light for fewer hours. Sufficient sleep—for most people, at least 7 hours a night—is important for mental health, physical health, and a balanced mood. It might be tempting to curl up in front of the TV to binge shows all night long (after all, if it’s darker earlier and longer, how can you tell when it’s really time to turn off the TV and go to bed?), but you’ll feel better if you set a regular bedtime that allows for a full night’s rest uninterrupted by glowing screens and 24-hour notifications.

Use a light box

Some studies have shown that using a 10,000-lux light box for 30 to 60 minutes a day can prevent or alleviate SAD symptoms. For best results, use the light at the same time each day (first thing when you get up, for example) and position the box and yourself so that some of the light falls just above your eyes for a more natural sunlight experience. If you can’t afford your own light box, some health and fitness clubs offer light box rooms you can use.

Plan a fun get-away, staycation, or another enjoyable event

Need more sunlight than your home state will ever give you in winter? Plan a vacation to a warmer, sunnier destination for middle or late winter to break up the season. Or plan a closer get-away or relaxing staycation. The simple act of planning and looking forward to something special can lift the mood.

Celebrate with alcohol in moderation

There are plenty of reasons to imbibe during the winter months, however alcohol is a natural depressant, which means it lowers neurotransmissions in the brain and can make seasonal affective disorder worse. Consider going dry for the darker months or limiting your alcohol consumption. Swap the evening beer or wine for a warm drink like tea, cider, coffee, or a steamer. Replace champagne with fizzy non- or low-alcohol drinks to keep the festive spirit.

Spend time with friends

Don’t let the dark or the weather seclude you from friends. Stay social. Plan relaxed, no-pressure gatherings like potlucks, game nights, movie nights, or crafting nights

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