Winter blues can catch northern newcomers off-guard

Dec. 21 is the shortest day of the year, and many are resisting the urge to curl up and sleep their way through the winter.

Winter blues in the North

11 years ago
Duration 2:08
CBC North's Elizabeth McMillan explains why the winter blues can affect newcomers to the North more acutely than others.

Dec. 21 is the shortest day of the year and many are resisting the urge to curl up and sleep their way through the winter.

Yellowknife will get less than five hours of daylight on Wednesday. Whitehorse will get about five and a half hours, and Iqaluit will get four hours and 20 minutes of daylight.

Communities north of the Arctic circle, such as Inuvik and Igloolik, have been in 24-hour darkness for about a month already. They won’t see the sun again until early January.

But the urge to hibernate is not just superficial - hunkering down for the winter is partly biological and Northern newcomers might feel the tiredness more acutely, says Michelle Murti of the Northwest Territories’ Department of Health and Social Services.

"Maybe you feel heavier in the body, don't really feel like working out as much, all those things," she said. "Unfortunately those are all the good things you should be doing to keep yourself healthy."

A road marker to help navigate vehicles blows in the wind as the sunsets on a frozen tundra road near The Meadowbank Gold Mine in Nunavut. Wednesday, Dec. 21, is the shortest day of the year, and many northerners will see less than five hours of daylight. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Murti said the change in the amount of sunlight affects peoples' chemical make-up and with less melatonin and serotonin, people's mood and energy levels can take a hit.

She said loading up on bread can actually help – a little – as some carbohydrate-rich foods release serotonin.

"And that does make you feel a little better, temporarily," she said.

But the lack of daylight isn't just a trigger for seasonal cravings. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) affects up to a million Canadians, and irritability and anti-social behaviour could be a sign people are sinking into depression.

"For other people it can be quite a bit more severe," she said. "Some people feel really down, depressed. They're not able to go to work, get out of bed. For those people they really need to be concerned about what's happening and getting in to see a health care provider."

The health department recommends getting outside in daylight as much as possible, loading up on vitamin D and not waiting for New Year’s resolutions to start exercising.