For your health: beat the winter blues
With the excitement of the holidays upon us, it’s easy to see why the winter months are some of the most magical of the year. Celebrating with friends and family, watching your kids open the gift they always wanted and giving back to the community are all a source of joy this time of year.
So why is it that once the tree is put back in the attic, our moods can deteriorate? Why is it difficult for some to experience joy all winter long, even with the holidays? The answer is much more common than you might think.
Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is a type of depression that, as the name suggests, occurs seasonally. Although much more common during the fall / winter months, it can also be present for some in the spring / summer. So what are the risks of developing it? What are the causes? What Kinds of Symptoms Do People Have?
SAD is more common in women, although it is diagnosed in both sexes. It can also affect all age groups, but is more commonly seen in adults.
Other risk factors include:
• Family history of depression;
• Have a diagnosis of depression or bipolar disorder;
• Live in a more northern state with less sun.
Although a specific cause has not yet been found, possible factors include:
• Your biological clock: reduced sunlight can disrupt circadian rhythms and sleep patterns;
• Serotonin levels: Reduced amounts of this hormone, possibly due to reduced sunlight, are known to cause symptoms of depression;
• Melatonin imbalance: This can affect sleep patterns and mood.
Symptoms may include:
• Feeling depressed more days than not;
• Loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy;
• Low energy levels;
• Sleep problems, too much or not enough;
• Appetite / weight changes, gain or loss;
• Feeling lethargic or restless;
• Feeling of hopelessness;
• Having thoughts of death / suicide.
Often complications of SAD include social withdrawal, more difficulty in school / work and increased alcohol consumption.
So what can be done around the house to help reduce these symptoms and make you feel more like yourself during those long, cold months?
• Good sleep hygiene: this includes having a regular bedtime, getting up at the same time each morning, minimizing exposure to light in your bedroom, avoiding using computers or televisions in your bedroom, avoiding sunlight. caffeine at the end of the day and keep your bedroom temperature nice and cool;
(Pro tip: If you can’t sleep, don’t keep tossing and turning. Go sit on the couch with a book, turn on a low light, and read until you’re sleepy. Then go back to the bedroom to try some sleep.)
• Daily walks outdoors, even in cloudy weather;
• Aerobic exercise;
• Brighter interior lighting.
• Light therapy and / or dawn simulation: if you are interested, discuss this with your doctor, as he or she can tell you the type of light box and its use.
It is important to keep your doctor informed about your mental well-being throughout these winter months, especially if you experience any signs or symptoms of SAD. This is especially true if you have had thoughts of extreme desperation or suicide, as medication may be needed in addition to the home remedies listed above.
Alexandria Geist, DO, is a family physician with Capital Region Physicians-Southwest.