By Holly Glen Gearhart, Contributing Writer
Shorter daylight and overcast skies, wind, rain and cold; winter is upon us and there is more to come. Emotionally surviving the next few months is easier than you think when given a few suggestions from physicians and nutritionists.
The lack of sunlight combined with a lack of exercise and good nutrition is the “trifecta” that could put you and your holidays at risk. With a little information and a few well-chosen changes, this winter could be the happiest and most productive in years.
Why we get the blues in the winter
Our natural inclination during colder months is to hunker down from the cold, eat foods loaded with fat, and sleep – hibernate – when the sun goes down. Follow this pattern long enough and your winter will be filled with weight gain and depression which will take a toll on your health.
The lack of sunlight during winter months disrupts our internal clocks and plays havoc with our circadian rhythm; the 24-hour cycle of natural biologic activity.
“The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter … disrupt your body’s internal clock, which lets you know when you should sleep or be awake. This disruption … may lead to feelings of depression,” explains the Mayo Clinic. A drop in serotonin and or melatonin affects mood which may be part of Seasonal Affectation Disorder (SAD), the clinical name for winter blues.
The situation is particularly challenging in the Pacific Northwest, where clouds block a great deal of what little sunlight there is, and near the solstice, the sun is so low to the horizon that we get just a few short hours of exposure in a day.
Without enough sunlight the brain works overtime to produce melatonin, a hormone linked to depression that regulates your body clock and sleep patterns.
But melatonin cannot do it alone: Vitamin D levels have a huge impact on the blues and some studies have shown that people with low blood levels of omega-3s may have a more negative outlook on life than others. Also, foods high in sugar, especially high fructose corn syrup, have a serious negative impact on your mood.
A few of the symptoms to watch out for are sad, anxious or “empty” feelings, pessimism, loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy. Unusual fatigue, oversleeping or insomnia and weight gain are often overlooked as we approach the hustle and bustle of holiday season, not to mention all that fattening holiday food.
What to bring home to offset SAD
One popular treatment for the winter blues is light therapy–exposure to artificial light, usually through the use of light boxes, lamps that give off light similar in spectrum to that of the sun. Light therapy is thought to affect brain chemicals linked to moods.
The light used for this mimics natural sunlight. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Researchers believe this type of light causes a chemical change in the brain that lifts your mood and eases other symptoms of SAD.”
Check with your physician to design a plan for using light therapy and to decide whichlight box to purchase. Most insurance carriers, to date, do not cover the expense. Light boxes are available at pharmacies, hardware and department stores with prices from $30 up.
Another strategy to support your mood is to get regular physical exercise. It is, in fact, one of the most powerful strategies you can take to boost your spirits. But the winter months are often the most sedentary of the year, as the outdoors are often too unpleasant for outdoor activities.
These are the months when it makes sense to set up a treadmill in front of the TV, or when a Wii with exercise programs becomes a really good idea. All it takes is about half an hour of aerobic exercise per day to improve mood; studies have shown exercise to be as effective as prescription antidepressants in treating depression.
And exercise can also help offset the impact of the increase in calorie consumption that is almost unavoidable during the holiday season, and that, too, helps combat feelings of low self-esteem.
For people who tend to isolate, exercising at the YMCA can provide both aerobic activity and social support. The YMCA has a number of activities for all ages this season, including the Silver Sneakers program designed for folks over 50. Go to http://www.ymca-snoco.org for more information.
Sleep cycles can get disrupted in the winter, when one goes to sleep well after dark and wakes up well before dawn. The best way to adjust is to sleep at a regular time and keep that time even on days off. To assist in adjustment to winter hours, a circadian rhythm alarm clock could help. There are several products on the market designed to simulate morning sunlight, with full spectrum light growing brighter as the waking time is reached, sometimes accompanied by music that gradually grow louder, so that one emerges from sleep naturally, and therefore more well-rested.
One new innovation is an iPhone app that tracks your circadian rhythms and wakes you when you are closest to consciousness, making it much easier to rise. The phone is set to a target time and then placed beneath the pillow. The app monitors your breathing all night, and picks the best time within a half-hour window to wake you, based on your breathing patterns. Some tech reviewers have found themselves unable to make the app work, but those who have reported success with it also reported improved energy.
The last thing to bring home to fight winter blues isn’t a piece of hardware, but a nutritional supplement.
The lack of sunlight during the winter months will also drain your vitamin D levels, so visit your doctor and get our Vitamin D levels charted. Vitamin D supplements are very inexpensive and simple to swallow, and they could make or break your holiday season.
Also, it can’t hurt to indulge in a couple of feel-good items to get you through till we turn the clocks forward again. Consider a foot spa, or a massage chair, or even a cozy blanket and a stack of good books.
Winter could become your favorite season!