Darker days can mean drearier moods, and the period after autumn's daylight saving clock reset is always an adjustment. While Seema Bonney, M.D., the founder and medical director of the Anti-Aging & Longevity Center of Philadelphia, says it's great to get an extra hour of sleep, the loss of afternoon sunlight can deal a real blow to health and well-being.
"The reason sunlight is really important is it helps to activate the hypothalamus, which is that part of the brain that helps to regulate our circadian rhythm and the sleep-wake cycle," she explains.
Clock shifts can throw off the circadian rhythm and affect the release of certain hormones including sleep-supporting melatonin and feel-good serotonin—causing many people (up to 70% of us in northern states, Bonney estimates) to feel tired and a little melancholy this time of year. Losing an hour of sunlight that you might have otherwise used to get outside to exercise can further aggravate the winter blues.
To get back on track, Bonney recommends prioritizing these four essential health buckets. In addition to restoring a sunnier mood in the weeks ahead, a lot of them will also support health and longevity for the long haul.
Now that it's brighter earlier, make a point to get outside (or look out a window) first thing in the morning. The morning light will help energize you and send a signal to the circadian rhythm that it's time to start the day1. From there, Bonney recommends sitting near a window to continue to get light during the day. If you live or work in a dark space, she says light therapy boxes can be just as effective for brightening your mood.
Light and sleep are intricately connected, so once the sun goes down, it's time to start the transition to a bedtime state of mind.
Research shows that syncing your sleep with the rhythms of day and night light can support a healthy mood, digestion, immune function, and more. This might mean going to bed a bit earlier in the winter months if you can swing it.
Whatever time you choose to snooze, it's essential to keep it consistent. "The body really functions best when you're waking up and sleeping at the same times," Bonney says.
To help the body get acclimated to a consistent bedtime and crave sleep at the same time every day, Bonney adds, "It comes down to really being intentional and having good habits you're doing most nights." They can include taking a warm bath or shower, sipping some non-caffeinated tea, doing a relaxing meditation, or taking a sleep-supporting supplement.*
Interestingly, Bonney notes, there are some foods that may increase serotonin levels and boost mood. For some positivity on a plate, she says to fill up on eggs, cheese, tuna, tofu, nuts and seeds, and pineapple (as long as you don't have sensitivities to any of these foods, of course).
To further offset the winter blues, you'll want to eat your meals alongside other people whenever you can. "Make sure that you feel like you're part of a community," Bonney says of the importance of connection this time of year—and always. "We're humans and we need to have a personal connection with people."
Lastly, getting your body moving is even more important when your mood is stagnant. Instead of letting your exercise routine fall by the wayside in winter, Bonney says this is the time to double down and aim to get at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week2. In her practice, she generally recommends strength training twice a week and cardio three times a week for maximum mood and longevity benefits.
If your low mood doesn't respond to these lifestyle shifts or feels unmanageable for most of the fall and winter year after year, you might be experiencing seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and will want to pay your doctor a visit.
The bottom line.
This time of year can be a downer, but there are plenty of things we can do to combat the winter blues to keep our spirits and energy levels up. Prioritize solid sleep, consistent exercise, healthy meals, and time outdoors in the weeks ahead, and who knows? You just might find that you're a winter person after all.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.