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Contributor: Staff at Carolina House
The winter months come with many potential triggers for people who have eating disorders. Winter can involve colder weather, stressful holiday prep, and other factors that may worsen mental health concerns. Understanding why eating disorder symptoms often intensify in the winter can help you prepare for the season and maintain your recovery.
Many people find themselves struggling with low mood and lack of energy in the winter due to less sunlight, colder weather, and shorter days. Some might even meet the criteria for seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that’s related to changes during a particular season. For most individuals who suffer from SAD, symptoms begin in the winter months when the days become shorter and the weather gets colder.
Lack of sunlight is one main factor that can contribute to low mood during the winter. Sunlight plays an important role in the body’s melatonin production, telling it when to increase and decrease levels that regulate sleep. Increased darkness in the winter can disrupt the body’s internal clock, causing difficulty sleeping or excessive sleeping. Being in the sunlight also gives the body a boost in serotonin, a natural chemical that improves mood.
Seasonal affective disorder commonly co-occurs with eating disorder symptoms. One study found that 27% of eating disorder patients met the criteria for seasonal affective disorder . Someone who struggles with an eating disorder may find their symptoms worsening during the colder months when seasonal depression often begins. Even if you don’t meet the criteria for SAD, the lack of sun — and the benefits that typically come with it — can make it more challenging for you to maintain recovery.
The winter months bring with them several holidays that are centered around food and eating. This can lead to excessive stress, anxiety, and triggering thoughts if you are in recovery from an eating disorder.
Additionally, the holidays often involve stress and anxiety over buying gifts, finances, visiting family members, socializing with friends, and traveling. Negative feelings like stress and anxiety are major contributors to eating disorder symptoms. For many people who have eating disorders, food becomes a way to gain a sense of control during times of distress. Those who are in recovery might find it more challenging to cope with the stress of the holidays and manage triggers in a healthy manner.
Winter Weight Changes
Weight gain in the winter is common as the colder weather causes many people to spend more time indoors. While studies show that the average adult only gains one pound in the winter, self-reported studies find that people think they gain up to five pounds during the colder seasons .
Any real weight gain, or the fear of it, can be triggering for someone who has an eating disorder. The thought of gaining weight can lead to negative feelings and worsened body dysmorphia. This might cause some to begin counting calories, undereating, and excessively exercising.
While weight gain is a normal part of getting older, it can still be difficult to cope with.
Maintaining Eating Disorder Recovery in Winter
Maintaining eating disorder recovery in the winter can be challenging with so many potential triggers. Here are some things you can do to stay on track this winter:
- Maintain your routine as best as possible: Routine is important for everyone, but especially if you have an eating disorder. A regular routine helps you plan your day, including meals. The transition to winter can throw off your schedule, but maintaining normalcy as much as possible can combat any negative consequences.
- Try light therapy: Light therapy is one treatment method for those who struggle with seasonal affective disorder or low mood in the winter. This involves the use of an artificial light source to give the body the same benefits as natural light, such as improved sleep, better mood, and increased energy.
- Stay in touch with your therapist: It’s important to stay in contact with your therapist, especially if you experience worsened eating disorder symptoms during the winter months. Your therapist can help you come up with a plan for managing potential triggers before you encounter them.
If you find it more challenging to maintain your eating disorder recovery in the winter, you’re not alone. It’s important to reach out for help as soon as possible to avoid negative consequences and sustain your recovery.
References: Nguyen, T.T., O’Neil, P.M., Sebring, N.G., Sovik, K.N., Yanovski, J.A., & Yanovski, S.Z. (March 23, 2000). A prospective study of holiday weight gain. The New England Journal of Medicine. 342(12), 861-867. http://doi.org/10.1056/NEJM200003233421206.  Ghadirian, A. M., Marini, N., Jabalpurwala, S., & Steiger, H. (1999). Seasonal mood patterns in eating disorders. General hospital psychiatry, 21(5), 354–359. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0163-8343(99)00028-6.
About Carolina House
Carolina House is an eating disorder treatment center that serves people age 17 and older of all genders. Within our residential and outpatient programs, we offer a range of services, such as LGBTQ- and male-inclusive programming, to help individuals who are struggling with eating disorders and co-occurring mental health conditions. Our treatment connects individuals with the care they need to achieve long-term recovery from eating disorders and other mental health concerns.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published on January 10th, 2021. Published on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on January 10th, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC