Do you feel SAD? Steps to beat the winter blues

You are reading the Original Version (CLB5+) Read Simple Version (CLB3-4)

Skip to:

Is winter bringing you down? You’re not alone. Studies show that about 15% of Canadians get the winter blues while 2-3 % experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Symptoms start in the fall, persisting through the winter months and lasting until March.

What are the winter blues? Is it the same as SAD?

The winter blues is a mild form of SAD. Those with the blues feel very moody and tired, often without reason. They may also sleep too much and have low energy. This is caused by the lack of exposure to sunlight which affects hormonal levels in the body. A gland in the brain produces melatonin during the night and in periods of reduced light (as in winter) and causes us to feel drowsy. Meanwhile, decreased levels of serotonin, a chemical in the brain that regulates mood and behavior, also contributes to moodiness.

Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD, on the other hand is a recurring type of depression. SAD tends to occur more in adults and affects more women than men. People with SAD feel the winter blues but to a greater degree. A key difference is that SAD sufferers are not able to work or function in their day-to-day lives. While it is common for the disorder to affect people in winter, there is a form of SAD that occurs in summer and starts in spring. This why aside from lack of sunlight, doctors will also take into account a person’s genetic predisposition to depression when diagnosing for SAD. It has been found that 13-17% of people who develop SAD have an immediate family member with this disorder.

How to prevent and cope with the winter blues

  1. Recognize the signs – People with the winter blues will:
    • have mood problems such as sadness, boredom, and irritability.
    • be lethargic (lacking in energy). They will tend to sleep too much.
    • have a craving for carbohydrates (bread, pasta, sweets) or generally have a change in appetite.
    • lose interest in social activities.
    • feel stressed and tense.

    If you experience any or all of these symptoms, don’t ignore them. There are simple solutions that will help you start feeling better.

  2. Consult a doctor – Your family doctor should be able to check if there’s something wrong with you physically. A blood test may be conducted to check your blood count or Vitamin D levels to rule out anemia, thyroid dysfunction and other diseases that may cause your symptoms. Your doctor will prescribe treatment, medication, supplements or a healthier diet depending on the findings.
  3. Get enough sunlight – Go outside during the day. Take a walk during lunch break or play with your children in the snow. Natural light will help boost serotonin production and your overall mood. You can also try light therapy. This requires sitting near a special kind of lamp for about a half an hour a day. If your doctor prescribes light therapy for you, you can try it for free at Winnipeg Public Library branches all year round.
  4. Stay active – Exercise of at least 30 minutes every day is found to boost serotonin and endorphin (chemicals in the brain that block pain and induce feelings of pleasure) levels in the body. This translates to a natural boost in your mood after you walk, jog, dance or do aerobic exercises. Read How to stay active in winter to get more ideas.
  5. Eat healthy – Don’t give in to urges to eat starchy or sweet food. Make it a point to have a balanced diet of proteins, fruits and vegetables, and whole grains. Structure your eating patterns by eating three meals a day (no snacking in between) around the same time every day. This will ensure that your body will have the proper amount of nutrients to keep you feeling good.
  6. Talk to someone – Talk to your partner or friend. Talking about your feelings can relieve some burden. A supportive person can also give you the encouragement that you need to start making a change or start seeking treatment.

Is it more than just the blues?

How do you know that it’s SAD and not just the winter blues?

  1. After doing all six tips above you still feel down.
  2. The feeling is debilitating. You can’t perform your everyday tasks anymore.
  3. The feeling of hopelessness and helplessness persists.
  4. It is affecting your work and relationships.
  5. You are having suicidal thoughts.

Any or all of these symptoms means you should talk to an expert immediately. Your family doctor should be able to refer you to a psychiatrist or other mental health professionals. They will be able to prescribe the proper treatment for you. This may involve light therapy, counselling, medication or a combination of these. Call your doctor or check CMHA Mental Health Resources for more information.
Article updated October 27, 2020.
Sources: Don’t be SAD, Laurie McPherson, Winnipeg Health Region; Combating the winter blues (presentation slides), Blaine Roberts, English Online; More than just the winter blues?; Seasonal Affective Disorder,; Seasonal Affective Disorder, Canadian Mental Health Association; and What are endorphins? Tom Scheve, How stuff works. Retrieved December 10, 2018.

Back to top

Community Resources

Read Physical activity for Newcomers to know who to ask about great activities in your community.

The Hope for Wellness Helpline is available 24/7. Call 1-855-242-3310 for counselling available in English, French, Cree, Ojibway and Inuktitut. Online chat is also available in English and French at

Back to top

We'd love to hear from you!

Please login to tell us what you think.

Related Learning Activities

Health Workshops

A health care worker holding the hand of a patient

This is a series of workshops related to health. Workshops 1 is geared towards CLB 3-4. Workshop 2 is geared… Read more »

Back to top

CC BY-NC-SAText of this page is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA, unless otherwise marked. Please attribute to English Online Inc. and link back to this page where possible. For images and videos, check the source for licensing information.