(541) 771-7771 jeanie@octaneforthebrain.com

Baby, It’s Dark Outside!

“Hangin’ around… Nothin’ to do but frown…
Rainy days and Mondays always get me down”
~ Karen Carpenter’s 1971 hit song lyrics


Ever notice that as rain drops fall from the sky, your mood sometimes dampens, too? If your soul feels a bit gloomy when the days are short and wet, it’s not your imagination. Bad weather and dark days can indeed down-shift your emotions in a negative way.

I should be used to winter in the Pacific Northwest by now. It took me awhile to get used to what seems like infinite gray skies here at Latitude 47 (47.6062° N 122.3321° W…to be exact). But after growing up in the sunshine states of Texas and California, the days are short, and the nights are endless from October until …oh never mind. At least we don’t have to shovel rain, so I guess I should not complain. It’s a beautiful place to live even if it does rain cats and dogs.

I, along with the other Rain Country dwellers in North America, frown more frequently when it’s dark, but we know that in a few months the daffodils will pop their yellow heads out of the dirt, and we will smile again. So what’s all the fuss?

What Causes Us To Feel Like Hibernating In Winter?

A variety of things can alter or change your moods in cold, dark, and dreary weather. If we feel down, it’s not imaginary. When it is dark, your brain releases a hormone called melatonin. This hormone is responsible for helping you sleep.

Sunlight and darkness trigger the release of hormones in your brain. Exposure to sunlight is thought to increase the brain’s release of a hormone called serotonin. Serotonin is associated with boosting your mood and helping you feel calm and focused. When sunlight enters the eye, the retina triggers the brain to release the “happy chemical” serotonin. The further north from the equator we are, the less light our eyes take in during the winter. That causes us to produce less serotonin, and that may make us feel sad.

Sunlight Can Become a Natural Anti-Depressant

We’re used to hearing about how too much of the sun’s warm rays can be harmful to your skin. But did you know the right balance of sun on your body can boost your mental health?

Light therapy boxes are a highly effective treatment for people who live in northern climates and experience seasonal depression. (If one lives far from the equator—greater than 35° degrees latitude—the sunshine is notably weaker.) Unlike major depression, SAD symptoms occur seasonally. The mood changes usually begin in September or October and may last through March or April.

Light therapy boxes mimic natural sunlight, and when used they cause the brain to release serotonin and reduce excess melatonin similar to the way our beloved—but sometimes hidden—sunshine does.

While we can thank sunlight for boosting our moods, there are plenty of other health risks that can harm us when we catch only minimal rays of sun.

Vitamin D is commonly referred to as “the sunshine vitamin.” When you spend negligible time in the sun during the winter months, your body suffers from minimal Vitamin D in your skin. (This is especially true for individuals with darker skin.) Low vitamin D—like serotonin—is linked to depression and is known to increase stress and anxiety levels. We also need vitamin D to help us resist certain diseases and to help us sleep well. Sufficient amounts of this vitamin boosts both brains and bone strength.

Unfortunately, even people who eat nutritious food can become functionally vitamin D deficient. Some researchers claim that this malady has reached epidemic status in recent years. (A recent research study found that in the U.S., 80% of adults have insufficient vitamin D levels.

Deficiency factors may include:

  • Living in an area with high pollution
  • Using sunscreen
  • Having darker skin
  • Spending too much time indoors (Perhaps we need to spend a little more time walking outdoors …)
  • Living in big cities where tall buildings block sunlight
  • Increased age (For example, studies show that half of the U.S. population over age 65 suffers from deficient vitamin D levels. Think of how this deficiency affects dementia and cognitive decline risks as we age!)

Are You Getting Enough Vitamin D?

You can get small amounts of vitamin D from foods such as eggs, fortified milk, and fish. But if you are unable to take in a minimum of 15 or 20 minutes of sunlight every week, you will want to ask your health provider to perform a simple blood test to check your vitamin D levels.
If you have a deficiency, your doctor will likely recommend taking supplements. He or she may also suggest that you spend limited time outside without sun screen.
Since I happen to live in an area where the clouds hide the sun for months on end, I beg my doctor for a prescription to hit the beach in San Diego. Although I plead that it would make me happier and healthier, currently he just tells me to take supplements and seek the elusive Seattle sun when it finally appears.

Wait Out Winter…or Embrace It?

Although I use a light box, and I faithfully take my vitamin D supplements, I also have a countdown calendar that shows how many days are left until April 1—when spring is likely to part the clouds in the Northwest. In the meantime, I will share a few things that help me and others somehow keep a positive mindset.

Keep Moving

Weather-or-not, get out and take walks in nature. Although the skies may not seem very light, you will likely get exposure to some healthy UV rays. Along with the exercise, the daylight will help regulate your body’s sleep cycles. And who knows… if you walk fast enough, your body will feel warmer, and your brain may release glorious endorphins which may perk up your surly wintry mood.

If you live in an area where the rain pours or snow falls often, consider joining a gym or your local YMCA. Your body will feel great if you walk on the indoor track, swim in a glorious pool, or sweat our wintertime in a sauna. Or if you don’t want to drive, just turn sweat to the oldies music in your family room or dance like nobody is watching. Your dog may sense the fun and dance along with you. Mine does! The laughter she creates when she joins my dancing routine certainly lightens my spirit.)

Create a Warm Winter Wellness Refuge

In the Scandinavian countries (approximately 60° latitude), darkness reigns during the winter and the cold is harsh. But the Scandinavians are consistently judged to be the happiest people on the planet. Despite the gloom of winter… enter the concept of “hygge.”

Hygge is pronounced “hoo-gah” in English. This word loosely translates to what English speakers call “coziness.” People who live in the northern-most latitudes focus on creating inviting, warm atmospheres in their homes. The Scandinavians also view their winter wonderlands as something to be enjoyed—not something to be endured.
They sip hot drinks by the fireplace, light candles, read, and watch TV under mountains of warm blankets. The tightly knit communities also celebrate the things they can only do in winter. They ski, carve ice sculptures, and they participate in snow festivals. They have a recommendation for us in the lower latitudes…“There’s no such thing as bad weather. Only bad clothing.” Ahhhhh…good to know!

While most North Americans can’t cross-country ski straight out of our houses, we can still light our fireplaces and joyously illuminate our retreats with cozy candles. We can also cozy up by sipping hot drinks and munching nachos when it’s cold. And maybe…just maybe… we can also refuse to participate in the Wintertime Misery Olympics.
I know I feel warmer and happier when I stop tracking the rainfall inches (we accumulated 9+ inches in January alone…) and simply treasure the beauty of the place where we live. Despite the non-stop rain this year, I feel fortunate to live in the shadow of majestic Mt. Rainier. Although it’s often veiled behind clouds—for months on end—we locals know it’s there. When the clouds part, our hearts fall in love with Seattle all over again when—as we say around here—the mountain is OUT!

How Does Winter Affect YOUR Mindset?

In which latitude do you live? How do the winter months affect you? What do you do to boost your health and happiness during the winter?
Feel free to share your comments and suggestions for those of us who dwell in northern latitudes. We would love to hear from you, and we will do our best not to get jealous!

  • Andrea Roozekrans
    Posted at 14:38h, 20 February Reply

    Exactly! I suffer from S.A.D., and unfortunately I can’t use light boxes because they trip me straight into migraines, though I know they work wonderfully for most people. I take vitamin D supplements and I get outside any time I can to catch a couple of minutes of sunny rays if the clouds part. My lifesaver during the dark winter months is practicing or teaching yoga daily, it’s both my physical and mental health, especially during winter!!

    • Jeanie McKay, CPC, ELI-MP
      Posted at 21:21h, 24 February Reply

      I am glad you brought up the unfortunate issue with light boxes sometimes causing migraines. Powerful, bright light can definitely do that! Thanks for sharing! I am so happy you are practicing and teaching yoga every day. I feel better when I engage in that activity as well. If we lived down South somewhere, hey…we could practice yoga on the beach, right? 🙂 I am tearing off days on the calendar until Spring officially begins. Let’s hope the weather cooperates with our vitamin D needs very soon.

Post A Comment