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Chasing Away the Wintertime Blues

I was just talking to my sister in Christchurch, New Zealand earlier this week and she was complaining that the temperature on her side is “down” to 12°C (54°F). I looked outside where my kids were happily playing because we are finally “up” to 12°C after a long, cold winter. They were wearing light jackets and baseball caps.

What I am trying to say is that winter blues or seasonal affective disorder (SAD) as we call it is a year-round thing, depending on where you are. SAD is a not-very-well-understood but definitely existing psychiatric condition characterized by depressive symptoms during the long, dark, winter months. SAD is said to affect about 2 to 5% of people in the US alone. Other SAD symptoms include:

    Lethargy, e.g. chronic fatigue and need for more sleep
    Cravings for carbohydrates that easily lead to weight gain, the so-called “winter fat.”

SAD has two main characteristics:

It is seasonal.
SAD is observed in the winter time when the days are short, and daylight minimal. The symptoms usually start with the onset of autumn, peak in midwinter January when people get over the holiday mood, but resolve as soon as the sun stays a bit longer in spring.

It is geographic.
The incidence of SAD increases as one moves northward (or southward, depending on where you are). In other words, the risk and incidence of SAD is higher in higher latitudes where sunshine is practically non-existent in the winter time and the day basically consists of 24/7 of night time. It is no wonder the suicide rates are very high in winter time in these regions. In addition to the short daylight hours, winter gloominess can also be worsened by fogs and low clouds, something that you get when living close to big lakes like in Switzerland or Scotland. On the other hand, SAD incidence is practically non-existent in the tropics where winter is unheard of.

So how do we fight SAD (isn’t this abbreviation so fitting!)? Here are a few tips to help you through the winter blues:

Go outdoors.
The cure for SAD may just be outside your front door. Take advantage of the short daylight by going out late morning till early afternoon. Have you ever noticed how the snow make everything seems lighter even on the gloomiest day? Make a midday walk a daily routine. You get sunlight, vitamin D, and physical exercise.

Go somewhere bright and light.
If you have the time and the money, then follow the birds and go south (or north), even if only for a couple of days. Those of you living in the US don’t even have to go out of the country. A weekend in southern California or Florida would do just fine. Here in Switzerland, we always get daily information as to which is the closest hilltop or mountaintop to go to in order to escape the lowland fog and low clouds. You’d be surprised at the difference in visibility once you are over the clouds. The sun up there can be blinding.

Make your place as light as possible.
If you don’t have the money for a tropical, sunny vacation, then try making your home as light as possible. White walls are best in keeping a room light and airy. But if you don’t have them and you don’t feel like (understandably!) painting in midwinter, there are other things you can do. Open the curtains, blinds, shutters, drapes or whatever you have on your windows at daytime. Turn on the lights even if it’s daytime. You’d be surprised how dark it is indoors even with artificial light. Indoor illumination is approximately 500 lux. Try taking a picture with your camera. The flash automatically goes on!

Lighten up your clothes.
It’s not only the dark walls and the gloomy rooms that can affect your mood. It strikes me as strange that we tend to dress in dark, drab colors in winter time. Black maybe chic but it’s not the time to make a fashion statement. A little color on yourself could really cheer you up as well as others around you.

Use artificial light.
If you cannot have natural light, then go for the artificial type. Health experts at UC Davis recommend artificial light therapy for those with serious cases of SAD. The standard light therapy equipment is a TV-sized light box with fluorescent bulbs behind a protective filter. The box would emit between 2,500 to 10,000 lux, which is equivalent to the outdoor light at dawn or at dusk. SAD treatment consists of standing in front of the light box between 15 minutes to 2 hours every day and is said to be work better and faster than drugs. The box can be bought or rented.

In cases where light therapy alone doesn’t help, the treatment can also be combined with anti-depressants. The drug Prozac seems to work best against SAD, according to the UC Davis experts. However, consult your doctor before taking any anti-depressants.

Choose fiber-rich carbs.
You may not be able to ignore those cravings for carbohydrates any longer. Make sure you go for the carbohydrates rich in fibers: whole grain bread and crackers, whole grain, sugar-free cereals, even whole grain pasta.

Keep a regular sleeping pattern.
If you give in to frequent daytime napping, you will end up not sleeping well at night. Keeping a regular night time sleeping pattern is the best way to avoid sleep disturbances.

Author: Science-Mom

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