The Coming Winter Season – Sunlight, Warmth, Vitamin D, and Avoiding Substance Abuse in Colder Months

Man depressed at home during winter time.

Most people gravitate to sunny days over gray ones. Most tend to enjoy warm weather over cold. Most would prefer a day with 16 hours of sunlight over one with just half that. Though this does not apply to everyone everywhere, we can safely say that humans are generally inclined towards warm weather and regular sunlight.

With that in mind, it shouldn't come as a surprise that people are more likely to experiment with mind-altering substances during cold, gray weather. These are times when moods are more likely to be foul. These are times when depression, anxiety, and generally unpleasant feelings tend to show up the most.

But what definitive connection is there between cold, dark weather and increased substance abuse? And what can we do about it?

Exploring the Connection Between Weather and Mood

An article in WebMD explored the connection between sunlight and depression. According to the article, sunlight is thought to bring on a natural, feel-good sensation. Sunlight provides essential vitamin D to the body, and that affects mood as well. From the research, regular and consistent sunlight led to happier moods, and vice versa.

Let’s also keep in mind that depression is one of the most common precursors for drug use and heavy drinking. When people are deprived of sunlight, they are more likely to be depressed. And when depressed, people are more likely to use drugs and alcohol to cope.

With that being said, this phenomenon is not extant in every single person every single time. Some people like cold, gray climates. Furthermore, there are drug users and heavy drinkers who live in warm, sunny environments.

But there is value in pointing to the general occurrence of a drop in happiness, a reduction in one's mood and general attitude, during cold, dark weather. And it has value to note that people are more likely to feel ill at ease during such weather changes. If seasonal depression might be a precursor for substance abuse as a coping mechanism, we should work to prevent such recreational drug use.

That is to say, if we know bad weather is coming, we can take precautions to ensure that we and others close to us have positive, heart-warming, healthy activities to take part in. That helps keep moods and minds uplifted even during cold, sun-deprived seasons.

Alcohol Misuse and Living in Cold, Dark Climates

Drinking in winter

The details of a 2017 study on the connection between alcohol misuse, cold weather, and lack of sunlight were published in a BBC article. The article summarized in-depth research on the correlation.

The full data of the study can be found in the Journal of Hepatology, but BBC summarized it quite well. According to the research, as temperatures drop and sunlight hours dwindle, people are more likely to drink alcohol heavily. Also, incidences of cirrhosis of the liver are more likely to occur during colder months than warmer ones.

The senior author of the study, Ramon Bataller, an associate director of the Pittsburgh Liver Research Centre, gave some commentary for the BBC on the study’s findings. “This is the first study that systematically demonstrates that worldwide and in America, in colder areas and areas with less sun, you have more drinking and more alcoholic cirrhosis.”

The Journal of Hepatology based its findings on a careful study of 193 countries. The approach was quite simple. Researchers studied data for each country by using material from the World Health Organization and the World Meteorological Organization. The researchers found that residents living in countries with cold, dark climates tended to struggle with higher rates of alcohol misuse and cirrhosis of the liver, particularly during the coldest, darkest months.

While we cannot say that the study proves that cold, dark weather causes heavy drinking and cirrhosis of the liver, we can say that there is a corollary. We can say with confidence that cold temperatures, lack of sunlight, and all of the other unpleasant phenomena that go with those weather patterns does contribute to higher drinking rates.

Cold Weather and Drug Overdoses

Finally, there is also research that indicates that people are more likely to overdose on drugs during cold weather than during warm weather. That is an interesting revelation, and it ties in with the above data on mood, emotion, seasonal depression, cold, overcast days, and heavy drinking. Apparently, the weather can affect drug-use patterns, too.

An article in Science Daily examined research done by Brown University and the Rhode Island Department of Health. Quoting Science Daily, “The research team looked at more than 3,000 opioid-related deaths in Connecticut and Rhode Island from 2014 to 2017. They compared the average temperature on the day of each death – and up to two weeks before – to the average temperature of three reference days in the same month. They found that an average temperature of 32 degrees three to seven days prior to day of death was associated with a 25 percent increase in the risk of fatal overdose compared to periods with an average temperature of 52 degrees.”

Here too, we cannot say that cold weather causes overdoses. But it is quite telling that overdoses seem to occur more often on days with low temps.

How Can You and Your Loved Ones Ensure Sobriety During the Winter Season?

Mother with daughter together in a winter time

It’s fair to say that cold weather, lack of sunlight, and the winter season can have a poor effect on emotions. And when feelings are the worse for wear, people are more likely to use drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism.

How can we halt such negative phenomena? The necessary strategy is purely a preventive one, merely an effort of improving emotions during the winter season. Families should put in even more energy during the winter months towards getting involved in positive activities. Parents should ensure their kids are involved in after school programs, clubs, social groups, etc. Families should spend more time together. Adults should find positive, enjoyable hobbies and activities to get involved in.

Just because the winter means short days, long nights, and cold weather does not mean we all must hide in our houses, depressed all the time. Our lives are what we make them to be. A lack of sunlight and cold temperatures can have a negative effect, but only if we let it. If we all make efforts to enhance our enjoyment of life, particularly during the winter, we can “survive the winter” as they say. And we can do so without any impulses to use substances to cope with the harsh season.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC,CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.