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Beating the Winter Blues

Posted 9/22/2008   Updated 9/22/2008 Email story   Print story


by Jenni Osborne
Health And Wellness Center

9/22/2008 - EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- Winter is here and you may be feeling like your own Snow White cast. You are Grumpy, Bashful, Sleepy, Dopey, and sometimes Sneezy.

We lose more than six minutes of daylight until Winter Solstice near Christmas, but the six minutes gained a day after that seem to take forever to make a difference. Unless you look outside around lunchtime, you may miss the sun altogether. With this increase in darkness and cold, the urge to cocoon with some munchies starts sounding better than hanging with the crowd. It's harder to get out of bed, and when you do, your mood resembles the landscape you see -- cold, dark, and nasty.

That's the problem: The gloom caused by Mother Nature each winter here at Eielson, is biologically felt to some degree by most of us - usually starting around October, peaking in January and February, and then magically ending with spring's thaw.

For most people, it manifests as winter doldrums, the "I-can't-wait-for-winter-to-end" feeling that produce mild but manageable sluggishness and food cravings. But many may have a more severe form of winter depression -- seasonal affective disorder, the aptly acronymed SAD that is typically diagnosed after at least two consecutive years of more intense symptoms.

According to the National Mental Health Association, SAD is a type of depression. Symptoms may include excessive eating and sleeping, and weight gain during the fall and winter months. A craving for sugary or starchy foods is also a hallmark of the condition.

It probably won't come as a surprise that a hormone is involved. Melatonin, a sleep-related hormone produced at higher levels in darkness, is secreted by the pineal gland in the brain, and has been linked to SAD and some symptoms of depression. When days are shorter and nights are longer, production is increased.

"While a person with winter doldrums may have difficulty waking up or getting out of bed at times, someone with seasonal affective disorder can't get to work on time," says Michael Terman, PhD, director of the Winter Depression Program at New York Psychiatric Institute and Columbia University Medical Center.

"With the doldrums, it's in the norm to gain up to five or six pounds over the winter, but with full-blown SAD, weight gain can be far more than that," he said.

Either way, it stems from the same cause: Sensitivity to the lack of sunlight that results from winter's shorter days and disrupts our circadian rhythm, or internal body clock. With SAD, the lack of sunlight causes the brain to work overtime producing melatonin, the hormone that regulates your body clock and sleep patterns and a hormone that has been linked to depression. That's why the farther north from the equator you live, the greater the risk you'll have some degree of winter depression.

The solution is to get as much sunlight as possible. Light enters the eye, which activates a body clock system that is similar to what controls seasonal breeding and hibernation in animals, says psychiatrist Daniel F. Kripke, MD, who conducted the world's first controlled study of bright light therapy for depression in 1981. This system is connected to the brain's appetite hardwiring, which might explain why you may have more food cravings in winter.

Regular indoor lighting has no effect, no matter how bright it is. To compensate, artificial "sunbox" lights with special fluorescent tubes that mimic the sun's beneficial rays are considered the go-to treatment for those with any level of winter depression.

"You might think those with winter doldrums might need less exposure to bright light therapy than people with SAD, but both groups benefit from the same amount," says Terman. That's about 30 minutes of exposure done first thing in the morning.

Timing is very important, and by administering it first thing in the morning, you keep your body clock on its springtime cycle during the winter, and that's how the depressive symptoms are lifted. These sunboxes can be placed on a desk or table while you eat breakfast or work.

Antidepressants are also beneficial, especially when used in conjunction with light therapy. "But my reading is that antidepressants by themselves are not as effective as light therapy by itself," says Kripke. He notes in a 1998 study that light therapy brought relief to many patients within one week, while antidepressants took about eight weeks.

As for the other two dwarfs - forgetting them is the worst thing you can do. There are "Happy" lights in the Health and Wellness Center for your use (call 377-WELL to reserve the room), and if you think more intervention may be needed, make an appointment to see your "Doc". You may not want to sing "Heigh Ho" anytime soon, but you will certainly get rid of your ho-hums. Enjoy your winter! 

Other tips for overcoming winter blues include:
· Get outside in the sun as much as possible.
· Keep the drapes in your house open and the window shades raised during daylight hours.
· Sit near windows, and gaze outside periodically.
· On cloudy days, turn on bright lights.
· Don't isolate yourself during winter. Visit friends, go to the gym, attend classes, check out local events, see shows--anything to get out and about. (The HAWC always has something going on!)
· Check out equipment from Outdoor Recreation and try a winter sport you haven't before. · Try to take your vacation in the winter instead of in the summer.

Information for this article was contributed by Sid Kirchheimer from WebMD.

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