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Long Northland winters can trigger the blues

By Les Riess, M.D.

Even by northern Minnesota standards, we’ve already had quite the winter, and we’ve probably got at least a month more to go. This knowledge — along with the cold weather and shorter days — might make some of us Northlanders feel like we’re suffering from a case of the winter blues. We find ourselves sleeping and eating more than usual. We may lack motivation, find it difficult to concentrate and find our mood sinking.

While winter blues is a general term and not a medical diagnosis, there are both psychological and physiological reasons for this seasonal melancholy.

Researchers believe that the reduced sunlight during the winter months can disrupt a person’s internal clock, or circadian rhythm. Our internal clocks respond to environmental cues, including light and darkness. During the day, the brain sends signals to the body to keep a person awake. At night, a gland in the brain produces a chemical called melatonin, which aids in sleep. The lack of sunlight during winter causes the brain to produce more melatonin, making us feel more sluggish and sleepy.

In addition, sunlight plays a role in the production of serotonin — a mood-enhancing chemical that regulates hunger, sleep, memory and body temperature. Less sun can lead to less serotonin, which is thought to contribute to changes in mood as well as eating and sleeping habits.

Finally, we spend more time indoors during the colder days of winter. Our activity levels drop and we become more sedentary, which can lead to boredom as well as the Minnesota malady known as cabin fever.

Our eating habits also change as we gravitate toward hearty comfort foods and sugary sweets, which can cause a spike and then crash in our energy levels and moods.

It’s fairly common to experience a minor case of the winter blues. But, if you find your symptoms becoming extreme to the point they impact your ability to complete daily tasks, you may be suffering from something more severe than a case of the blahs called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, about 4 to 6 percent of people may have SAD. It’s estimated that SAD affects a greater percentage of people in northern climates. One study found that in Florida, only about 1 percent of people suffer from SAD, whereas in Alaska about 10 percent of the population may be affected. If you feel your symptoms might indicate seasonal affective disorder, the first step you should take is to see your doctor to tailor a treatment plan based on your needs.

Whether it’s the blahs or a full-blown case of SAD, there are things you can do to keep the blues at bay.

Because sunlight is a key factor in mood changes during the winter months, increasing the amount of light you are exposed to can help elevate your mood. This can be as simple as taking a walk outside on a sunny morning. Light boxes, which provide bright light indoors can be an effective means of getting the light you need. There are numerous types of light boxes available, so get advice from your doctor before purchasing one. Bigger is usually better. In most cases, about 30 minutes of light therapy a day is enough to help elevate mood and decrease other symptoms.

The isolation of a long cold winter can lead to depressed mood. Reach out to others and maintain social relationships. Have lunch with a friend. Volunteer in the community. Even a phone call or email can help bolster your attitude and energy level.

Mood is highly correlated with activity level. Increased activity generally leads to increased mood. This leads us to everyone’s favorite word: exercise. Get up and get moving. Even just 20 or 30 minutes a day can help to elevate your mood, energy and metabolism.

Choose a healthy diet. What and when you eat has a significant effect on your overall well-being. Avoid refined and processed foods. Reach for complex carbohydrates and drink plenty of water. Healthy foods provide your mind and body with needed nutrients, stabilize blood sugar and energy levels.

Take time to relax and pamper yourself. Relaxation and a special treat — like a warm bath or scented candle — can elevate your mood and can lead to an increase in feel-good hormones, like serotonin.

For people with SAD, there is evidence that cognitive behavioral therapy is successful in decreasing symptoms. Some research has shown that light therapy accompanied by a low dose of melatonin is beneficial. In addition, people with SAD may benefit from antidepressant medications. Each individual case of SAD is different. Options like CBT, melatonin and antidepressants should be reviewed and prescribed by your physician.

We’re in the middle of a long, cold winter, and the weather and lack of sunlight can be enough to affect our mood, sleep patterns, diet and weight gain. You can take preventative steps to ward off the winter blues. And take heart – the days are getting longer. We are gaining about three minutes of sunlight each day. Spring is around the corner and before you know it we will be complaining about the mosquitoes and high, humid temperatures.