Fighting Off the Winter Blues

The snow came early to New England this year, announcing the arrival of our darkest season.  The diminished sunlight available over the next few months can present some well-documented challenges to your mood, sleep patterns and energy level so this might be a good time to review what you can do to avoid the worst of the winter blues.

As many as one in four of us will experience some form of winter-related gloom and it is estimated that 11 million Americans suffer from a more clinically debilitating type of winter depression, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which includes the following symptoms:

• Anxiety
• Irritability
• Loss of energy
• Changes in appetite or sleep
• Weight gain or loss
• Hopelessness
• Trouble concentrating

Both the milder forms of the winter blues and SAD are caused by the reduction of sunlight available in the shorter days of winter. People living in the northern states have a 4 ½ hour delay in sunrise in mid-winter versus the summer. The lack of sunlight disrupts our internal body clock as well as the amount of melatonin, a sleep regulating hormone, produced by the pineal gland and secreted into the blood stream and cerebrospinal fluid.

Not surprisingly, the solution is to get as much sunlight as possible. Travelling south in the winter is a pretty foolproof method to accomplish this. In fact, only 1% of the population in Florida suffers from some form of winter related depression, whereas the Northern regions of the U.S. have prevalence numbers as high as 50%. Unfortunately, a geographic cure is not a practical solution for many because of financial and schedule limitations.

However, even if you can’t travel your way to more sunshine there are other ways to compensate for this seasonal reduction in light:

  1. Practice good sleep hygiene. Keep regular sleep hours and minimize exposure to blue light (e.g. computer, tablet and television screens) for at least two hours prior to sleep.
  2. Aerobic exercise. Vigorous exercise can make an especially important contribution to a sense of well-being in the winter months when outdoor activity levels tend to decrease because of the cold.
  3. Bright light therapy. While regular indoor lighting is not an effective substitute for sunlight, there are artificial sun box lights with fluorescent tubes specifically designed to replicate the beneficial effects of sunlight. Many different types of boxes are commercially available meeting a variety of individual needs.
  4. Daily walks outside. Research shows that the benefit of a 60 minute walk outside in the morning is equal to a 30 minute session of bright light therapy
  5. Dawn simulation lighting. There are sunrise alarm clocks that have lighting effects which simulate the refreshing effects of a bright spring morning on a dark winter morning.

The three primary treatments for SAD, the most serious winter mood disorder, are antidepressants, light therapy and psychotherapy. If you have questions about the severity or management of your winter-related symptoms you should not hesitate to consult your primary care physician (PCP), or Employee Assistance Program (EAP)  to discuss the treatment options.

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