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Here’s Why You Feel Sluggish During Winter (and 5 Ways to Fix It)

By Sophia Harris
January 21, 2022

When it’s cold, damp, and dark outside, it’s normal to feel a bit under the proverbial weather. As the days grow shorter and the sun sets at 5:30 p.m. (or earlier), many find themselves feeling tired, achey, depressed, and getting sick much more frequently than they normally do.

Waking up in the morning feels impossible, getting through work without that third (or fourth) cup of coffee simply doesn’t happen, and you keep rescheduling that gym session. If you don’t want to let another winter pass by while not feeling your best, here’s your ticket off this ride: There are some specific reasons you don’t feel well in the winter, and you can manage them with at-home treatments to improve your chances of feeling great. 

1. Shorter days disrupt your circadian rhythm

As the days get shorter and we are exposed to less sunlight, our bodies produce more melatonin, which is a hormone that impacts sleep, rest, and our mood patterns. An increased production of melatonin during the day can impact the quality of sleep we get at night, which makes us feel even more groggy throughout the dark winter months. Getting exposure to bright light early in the day is critical for the health of our circadian rhythm, so missing out on this can explain why you’re both sleepy during the day and can’t sleep at night during winter months — the most frustrating combination ever. According to a study focused on the topic, this phenomenon may even be linked to seasonal affective disorder (SAD). 

The fix: In the summer, you don’t even have to try — just waking up every day and going about your business exposes you to adequate daylight. But in the winter, you need to prioritize getting light just as you would taking a vitamin, drinking enough water, and going to bed on time. In the morning, open your curtains to let light in on sunny days. Take long walks when it’s brightest outside, and if your light situation is really limited, consider purchasing an indoor therapy light so you can orchestrate your own “morning light” from anywhere. 

2. You’re not exercising

When it’s dark, cold, and you’ve just had a long day, it’s understandable that getting sweaty is the last thing you feel like doing. But what many don’t realize is that exercise can actually boost your energy levels when you do it consistently, and that’s why you feel even more sluggish when you don’t exercise. It’s a vicious cycle: you’ll be too tired to exercise, but more tired because you didn’t exercise. Some people worry that exercising when they’re already exhausted will just amplify their fatigue, but this actually won’t happen. As explained in this Q&A with Harvard Medicine, exercise spurs your body to produce more mitochondria inside your muscle cells, which increases your energy levels. Exercise also boosts oxygen supply within your body, so you can use your energy more efficiently. And of course, endorphins released during exercise feel great. 

The fix: If your spring and summer workout plan included lots of nice, sunlit walks and jogs after work, you may have to adjust your strategy. Some people just can’t find the motivation to run in the dark at 6 p.m. (and we totally get it). If this sounds like you, bench your outdoor workouts and consider investing in a workout video program for indoors, joining a health club or gym for access to machines, or taking a high-energy workout class that will motivate you to keep going. Bonus: Some gyms and health clubs have facilities like swimming pools and saunas, which can feel extra-luxurious to use during the winter months. 

3. You’re low on vitamin D

Vitamin D is truly an unsung hero: It plays a central role in bone health, hormones, cell growth, immunity, hair and skin, recovery, and inflammation-reduction. Vitamin D deficiency is common in Western cultures, even in warmer months. Studies have shown that low vitamin D levels are associated with everything from heart disease to depression, and symptoms of low vitamin D levels include extreme fatigue, depression, hair loss, bone fractures, general aches and pains, lowered immunity, bad sleep, and poor wound healing. The U.S. National Academy of Medicine recommends 600-800 IU of daily vitamin D intake, but given recent studies on mass vitamin D deficiency and the importance of the vitamin, the U.S. Endocrine Society recommends 1500-2000 IU per day. 

The fix: Sunlight is a great source of vitamin D (and the most common one), but in the wintertime, we miss out on this vital nutrient just from stepping outside. Even if you spend time outside in the sun in the winter, UV levels from the sun are lower, so your level of vitamin D synthesis may drop. Supplement your diet with great sources of vitamin D like fatty fish, whole eggs (the yolks are critical here!), and mushrooms. It may be challenging to meet your daily vitamin D requirements just through diet, however, so consider a vitamin D supplement. For most people, 1000-4000 IU per day is considered a safe dose. Vitamin D absorption is boosted when taken with Vitamin K, so consider a supplement that contains both. 

4. Magnesium isn’t finding its way into your diet

Magnesium is an amazing multitasking mineral, and it’s utilized by every cell in the body. It’s also usually lacking in most people’s diets — one study suggests that 75% of Americans aren’t meeting their daily recommended intake. Signs and symptoms of magnesium deficiency may include migraines, muscle tremors, achiness, poor sleep, constipation, migraines, nausea, and generalized weakness. Magnesium is also a mineral that’s critical for regulating vitamin D levels. So if you’re taking vitamin D without a sufficient amount of magnesium, your body may not be able to use it. Studies demonstrate that magnesium is essential in metabolizing vitamin D, and researchers believe that large doses of vitamin D without magnesium can induce severe depletion of magnesium (which is… not ideal). So if you’re supplementing with large doses of vitamin D, be sure to accompany that with a rich source of magnesium. 

The fix: Enrich your diet with magnesium — and start today, since there’s a good chance you’re at least mildly deficient. Pumpkin seeds, almonds, and spinach are strong sources of magnesium. To fight a deficiency more quickly, consider a higher-dose magnesium supplement. Magnesium citrate and magnesium oxide are popular. Research shows that it’s possible that magnesium can be supplemented transdermally (through the skin), though more research around this method is needed. To try out the transdermal method, taking a hot magnesium bath can be a great way to ease aches and pains from a workout, cold weather, or just do something nice for yourself to treat the winter blues. And even if it turns out that you can’t take in magnesium this way, a hot bath is still a pretty great treat and a solid self-care move. 

5. Viruses are indoors… and they’re here to stay

A common winter myth is that cold weather or rain itself can cause illness, but this isn’t really the case. Respiratory infections are more common in the winter because people have more face-to-face contact with others indoors, usually with poor ventilation and closed windows. When people get in our “breathing zone” (about a three foot radius) the dry winter air allows viruses to hang around longer than they would on a humid day. This increases the likelihood that you’ll be exposed to a virus in the winter. Experts say that this is the real reason you’re more likely to come down with a virus in cold weather — not because you were exposed to the harsh elements or went outside with wet hair. 

The fix: Wash your hands regularly, and don’t touch your face if you’re out in public or socializing. Wearing a mask and using hand sanitizer are both solid ways to avoid exposure to infection, and if you’re feeling under the weather, stay safe and stay home. This will help you avoid cold, flu, and coronavirus exposure. Make it a common practice to stand far away from people in grocery stores, lines, and gyms, and consider wearing a mask in crowded areas during flu season. 

Read next: Add These High-Magnesium Foods to Your Diet

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