DON’T BE SAD: Winter health and combatting Seasonal Affective Disorder

Winter has arrived. You may have already started feeling lethargic and like curling up in bed seems a better option than digging a scarf and mitts out from the closet. Sometimes called the “winter blues” in the healthcare community, it’s referred to as “Seasonal Affective Disorder” or SAD. Over 3 million North Americans suffer from SAD every winter, usually beginning in fall and continuing through the winter months.

Symptoms begin with losing interest in activities you normally enjoy, feeling sluggish or agitated, sleeping more, overeating, and an inability to concentrate. Although the cause isn’t completely known, there are consistent factors. Reduced sunlight may interrupt your circadian rhythm - your body’s internal clock - leading to lower serotonin and melatonin levels. These lower levels are often associated with feelings of depression and irregular sleep patterns. SAD tends to affect women more often than men and is most frequent in younger adults. Factors that may increase your risk include a family history, diagnosis of major depression or bipolar disorder and/or living far from the equator where sunlight is decreased during the winter.

So what can be done to battle these winter blues? First, understanding this is not just something we have to “get over” and deal with on our own. Rather, it is a mood disorder that can be identified and managed. Treatment for SAD may include light therapy (phototherapy), activity changes, medications and psychotherapy – also known as talk therapy.

Light therapy uses light boxes or sun lamps to mimic the appearance of natural sunlight to alleviate the symptoms of SAD. While a prescription isn’t necessary, it is beneficial to consult your doctor about recommended usage.

The lethargy and fatigue of SAD can prevent people from engaging in regular socialization and the loneliness can trigger depression. Having energy to get out and do regular activities when it’s overcast and dark can be tricky.

If you’re already too lethargic to have read the above tips, here are a few ideas at a glance:

  • Get outside. Make a habit of a daily noon-hour walk, particularly if you commute to school or work in the dark hours of the day. Sometimes the best options are free…like building snow forts in the backyard with kids – you’re never too old to enjoy a fort!

  • Exercise regularly. Group fitness classes, such as hot yoga, get you out with other people at the same time moving your body to get past the winter funk and relieve stress and anxiety.

  • Stick to your treatment plan (if you have one). Follow your treatment plan and attend therapy appointments when scheduled.

  • Make your environment brighter. Open blinds, sit closer to bright windows while at home or in the office, and exercise near windows. Play music and cook aromatic foods – this also helps entice friends and neighbours over!

  • Take care of yourself. Get enough sleep to feel rested but be careful not to hibernate. Drink tea or hot apple cider rather than alcohol to promote natural sleep, rather than disrupt it.

  • Socialize. Connect with people you enjoy being around. Consider being with others in the warmth of the indoors for a movie night, dinner party or an afternoon chat over a cup of hot cocoa or apple cider. Even a quick visit can often give you an energetic boost your brain needs.

Don't brush off these pesky feelings simply as a phase that you have to tough out on your own. It's normal to have some down days, but if you can’t find motivation to do activities you normally enjoy, ask for help. By making a few simple changes to your routine you can enjoy a healthier and happier winter season!

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