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A Ray of Hope for the Winter Blues

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Author: Dr. Christina Bjorndal, ND
Edmonton AB


 
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A Ray of Hope for the Winter Blues
 
Winter has always been my favorite time of year - with the trees losing their leaves, the crisp cool days, the first snowfall and the excitement of ski season. The turning back of the clocks at daylight savings time, however, brings the turning back of moods for many people. With exposure to less sunlight, especially in communities in Northern Canada, it can be more difficult to motivate yourself.
 
My husband grew up in the Yukon where there is very little sunlight during the winter and he never had a problem with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). However, many people do. If you're like most people with SAD, your symptoms start in the fall and may continue into the winter and spring months, zapping your energy and making you feel depressed.  It is helpful to know what the signs and symptoms are and once you understand the SAD picture, it is equally important to know what you can do to help yourself.
 
How do you know if you suffer from the winter blues or SAD?

Seasonal affective disorder is a pattern of major depressive episodes that occur and remit with changes in seasons. The most recognized form of seasonal affective disorder, "winter depression," is characterized by at least five of the following symptoms that are present during the same two-week period, nearly every day, and represent a change from previous functioning. At least one of the symptoms is either (1) depressed mood or (2) loss of interest or pleasure: Not everyone with SAD has the same symptoms, but common symptoms of winter depression include the following:
 
  • A change in appetite, especially a craving for sweet or starchy foods
  • Weight gain
  • A heavy feeling in the arms or legs
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • A tendency to oversleep or difficulty getting out of bed
  • Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness
  • Irritability
  • Increased sensitivity to social rejection
  • Avoidance of social situations
  • Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities you used to enjoy
  • Ongoing feelings of hopelessness or helplessness
  • Physical problems, such as headaches and stomach aches
  • Recurrent thoughts of death (not just fear of dying), recurrent suicidal ideation without a specific plan, or a suicide attempt or a specific plan for committing suicide.

Symptoms of SAD keep coming back and tend to come and go at about the same time every year. The changes in mood are not necessarily related to obvious seasonal stressors (like being regularly unemployed during the winter). To be formally diagnosed with SAD, you must have experienced the symptoms for the past 2 years. If these symptoms ring true for you, a friend or loved one, the following suggestions are a good place to start.

Steps you can take to prevent or alleviate SAD

There are many effective self-help treatments for SAD. The first priority is to increase your daily exposure to natural sunlight by getting outside for a walk or regular exercise during the day. Be sure to expose your eyes to the light and remove your sunglasses. You can also try sitting next to a south-facing window at your home or office. In some cases, the addition of light therapy to daily exposure is necessary to ensure adequate vitamin D production. In the winter months, we do not produce enough vitamin D because we are not outside for long enough in cold temperatures nor do we have much skin exposed when we are outside. Research has shown that vitamin D plays many key roles in the body – and improving mood is one of these. Light therapy has been shown to be an effective treatment for seasonal affective disorder. Another lighting suggestion is to replace commonly used light bulbs in your home with full or broad spectrum light bulbs. While more expensive than regular light bulbs, these bulbs provide light that is similar to natural sunlight.
To help prevent SAD, a regular sleep schedule is extremely important to maintain. It may be helpful, for instance, to have your bedroom lights on a timer to turn on a half-hour before you wake. This may help in waking at a regular time every morning when it is still dark outside in the winter months.

Foods have a significant influence on the brain's behaviour.  A poor diet, especially one high in junk food, can contribute to depression.  The levels of brain chemicals (known as neurotransmitters) are controlled by what we eat.  These neurotransmitters regulate our behaviour and our mood.  An important neurotransmitter implicated in depression is serotonin – which plays a role in mood, sleep, and appetite.  Low levels of serotonin may result from diets too high in simple sugars/carbohydrates (e.g., white sugar, white flour, sweets, processed foods) and leads to depression, anxiety, and sleep disturbances.  Diets high in complex carbohydrates (e.g., vegetables, whole grains, legumes/beans), on the other hand, help to increase serotonin and elevate mood.

If none of these suggestions seem to help your depressive symptoms after a few weeks, please consult a Naturopathic Doctor, Psychologist or Medical Doctor who can further assist you. Don't be afraid to talk about this condition with a professional, it's nothing to be ashamed or afraid of. Don't brush off that yearly feeling as simply a case of the "winter blues" or a seasonal funk that you have to tough out on your own. Take steps to keep your mood and motivation steady throughout the year. With a little effort, the winter blues can be beaten.
 
Originally published in Healthy Directions December/January 2012
 
To learn more about Dr. Christina Bjorndal, ND visit www.drchrisbjorndal.com

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