Beat the winter blues...
Every year, around the same time and without fail, I suddenly become irritable, anxious, grumpy, and lethargic. Unlike some popular misconceptions from people who wrongly think that chalking mood swings up to a womanís ďtime of the monthĒ is the only answer, this change in disposition comes from the change in weather and amount of natural sunlight available. Since living in the northern hemisphere unsurprisingly brings long winters, this irritability and hostility can last for about four months (six if you count the fact that Toronto winters are terribly lengthy). And then, once the spring hits, the bad moods lift and spirits are high.
Are you getting down as the mercury drops? We've got some ways to get your winter back on track.
If you feel the same way, youíre not alone. Most people describe the winter season as depressive, oppressive, and generally unpleasant. Itís not surprising that the term ďwinter bluesĒ lives in our lexicon. The long, dreary days can have a direct connection to temper and, outside of living on a tropical island, most of us canít do much about the weather. But we can take some steps towards improving our moods.
Itís All in the Body Chemistry
So why do most of us feel blue during the winter months? While nothing at the moment is conclusive, researchers agree that most of the blame lies on the amount of sunlight during the months of September to March Ė or, rather, the lack of sunlight during these cool months.
The culprits in this scenario are melatonin and serotonin. The hormone melatonin is naturally released when darkness falls, and causes a drop in body temperate. Drops in body temperature tend to be associated with sleep. Serotonin, on the other hand, is produced in the body via exposure to sunlight. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that acts as a regulator to other neurotransmitters and is thought to affect not only body functions, but also mood.
Without sunlight to stimulate the natural production of serotonin, people can become a smorgasbord of ill moods.
Severe Cases: Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Although everyone gets the winter blahs, there are extreme cases. The most severe of these mood disorders is seasonal affective disorder, which some studies cite as affecting more than 15 million people each year, or four to six people out of every hundred. An additional ten to twenty per cent might have a mild case of SAD. The condition is four times more common in women, and is uncommon in people younger than twenty (cases of SAD lessen the older a person becomes). Genetic vulnerabilities to depression increase chances of having SAD, and cases of SAD are more commonly reported the further north one lives. Cases of summer depression do exist, but winter depression is more frequent.
Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder include:
feelings of hopelessness and sadness thoughts of suicide hypersomnia (excessive sleeping and/or oversleeping) change in appetite, usually with unusual cravings for sweet and starchy foods weight fluctuations heavy feelings in arms and legs drops in energy level and physical activity difficulty concentrating irritability avoidance of social situations and increased sensibility to perceived social rejection
(The onset of these symptoms occurs at almost the same time every year, and with the same intensity. Other symptoms may include those that are present in other kinds of depression, such as feelings of guilt, loss of pleasure in once enjoyable activities, and physical pain.)
The main cause of SAD seems to be high levels of melatonin, and lack of serotonin, in the body. Although research is still on-going, most preliminary findings in clinical trials seem to suggest that resetting the bodyís natural clock, or sleep-wake cycle, can help to relieve the severe symptoms of this disorder.
A common treatment for SAD is the use of broadband light therapy, where the recipient of therapy uses a light box or wears a light visor for thirty to sixty minutes per day. The extra light helps to reset the biological clock. Light therapy might be used in conjunction with medication or behavioural therapy to better long-term effects.
If you think you might suffer from SAD, the first step is to seek help immediately. Letting these symptoms persist can lead to destructive behaviours and damaging interferences to day-to-day activities. For additional information, please visit The Mood Disorders Society of Canada and the Canadian Mental Health Association websites. If you think that light therapy might help, please consult a specialist before purchasing a light box or light visor. There are several on the market, but they must meet certain standards (such as full spectrum lighting) in order to be deemed effective and safe for use. Side effects of using light therapy vary from person to person, and may include eyestrain, fatigue, and inability to sleep if used too late in the day.
Improve Your Mood
Unfortunately, short of running away to a tropical island to sip margaritas for four months out of the year, escaping the winter blues isnít an option for must of us. But there are simple steps you can take to improve your mood and make the best of the frigid months.
The winter naturally brings the blues in its wake. But with a little determination and a positive outlook, we can overcome its dreariness. The weather might not be co-operative, but that doesnít mean that we have to bend to its will. C.Ho.
- Take advantage of the sunlight available. In the summer, take advantage of the fifty hours of sun available in the day and absorb as much as you can. Keep in mind that this does not mean burning in the sun unprotected; always use SPF 15 or higher, and stay indoors during high peak hours (usually around noon to early afternoon). Natural sunlight stimulates the production of cholecalciferol, which the body transforms into vitamin D. This process helps the body store higher levels of serotonin for the winter. Thus, every small moment in the summer counts Ė try going out early to minimize the risk of sunburn, have outdoor coffee breaks, or take a leisurely walk in the park after work.
- Plan enjoyable activities. Make sure that these include outdoor activities (but donít forget to bundle up). For an added bonus, the activeness will help you to stay fit and healthy in an otherwise hibernating-friendly season. For an indoor activity that brings much relaxation, try yoga or pilates.
- Eat healthy. Findings suggest that carbohydrates, such as starchy foods, can spark the production of serotonin, which in turn enhances mood. Indeed, many sufferers of SAD assert that they crave starchy and sweet foods. But these foods can often lead to a superficial adrenaline rush that leads nowhere. Instead, skip the sweets and reach for complex carbohydrates, found in such items as whole wheat, brown rice, vegetables, and fruits. Not only will these foods keep you from feeling sluggish, but theyíll also keep you strong and vigorous. My personal favourite winter treat is a hearty bowl of soup or stew, which is packed with flavour and vegetable goodness. Donít forget to wash these down with eight cups of water a day.
- Pamper yourself. Who said that the little things donít count? Every once in a while, a little indulgence can greatly improve mood. Take a nice, relaxing bath; hang out with old friends; go out and karaoke. These activities will make you feel relaxed, at ease, and help you to keep a positive attitude through these dreary months.
- Overhaul. Spring cleaning doesnít always have to occur in the spring. If you find yourself restless or feeling cooped up, try stirring things up in your every day environment. Whether itís a complete redecoration, or picking up a new lamp, the change can bring enormous contentment. Surround yourself with bright colours and plants, and the summer season wonít seem so quite far away.
- Try omega-3 fatty acids. In various studies, omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to decreased depression. The most common items packed with these acids are fish and cod liver oil, tofu and other soybeans, and walnuts.
- Change your routine. Sometimes feelings of sadness and irritation become even more severe when there is no end in sight. If you spent last winter stuck in a routine, itís time to shake things up. Try out a new hobby, travel, learn a new language. Trying something new or different will make the months pass by in no time.
- Open your windows. This seems easy enough, but most of us do tend to be stuck indoors for most of the day, sitting under artificial lighting. Without natural sunlight, the melatonin in our system escalates, making us feel listless and lethargic. When you wake up, make sure to draw your curtains or shades before embarking on a new day. Grabbing some sunlight before heading out will greatly improve your mood.