Our well-being and moods are naturally influenced by seasonal changes. We feel our spirits lift when the sun peeks out from behind the clouds, and the long days of summer fill us with seemingly endless energy reserves. The opposite occurs in winter with reduced energy levels and for some, a sense of melancholy that overshadows our minds and our outlook. Winters in Southeast Alaska can be especially gloomy when the starless black sky lightens to reveal a few daylight hours of steel-gray cloud cover. Severe cases of these “winter blues” may signal a temporary form of depression known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Scientists believe that the shorter daylight hours in winter affect the levels of melatonin, serotonin, and other biochemicals produced by the body. For example, melatonin is a hormone that triggers feelings of sleepiness. It is secreted a night by the pineal gland in the brain, so it has been found that longer hours of darkness elevate melatonin blood levels. As a result, many people find it difficult to drag themselves out of bed and those who are awake may remain sleepy throughout the day. “Like the bears, people tend to want to hibernate,” commented Dr. Kane, a naturopathic doctor in Juneau. This disruption of the body’s natural circadian rhythm, or sleep-wake cycle, can trigger SAD.
Norman E. Rosenthal’s book Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder describes case studies that show drastic changes in people’s personality, productivity, and feelings of self-worth. Rosenthal also notes that while SAD sufferers come from people from all different backgrounds, SAD is “about four times more common among women than among men.”
In his book, Rosenthal points to a number of SAD symptoms that resemble those of general depression, except that they occur at certain times of the year and disappear the rest of the year. Symptoms may include physical illnesses such as body aches, flu-like symptoms, and irregular menstruation. SAD can interfere with concentrating and processing information. Simple and routine tasks can seem daunting and even impossible.
Severe cases of SAD can lead to irregular sleep cycles, eating disorders, and severe feelings of depression that include abnormal crying spells, feelings of worthlessness, guilt, and constant negative thoughts. “SAD can make people feel as though they’re trapped,” observed Dr. Kane. “The darkness affects their concept of what options are available.” Medical advice from a health professional should be sought if a person’s functioning has become impaired to the degree that one’s work or personal life is negatively affected.
Once a SAD sufferer recognizes their symptoms as temporary seasonal phenomena, it is much easier to seek treatment. Friends and family will play an important role in supporting the affected person. Rosenthal emphasizes for SAD sufferers to avoid turning to mood-enhancing substances such as alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and drugs that could exacerbate symptoms and diminish one’s health. Winter may not the best time to make important decisions while under the influence of SAD because a distorted view of oneself or one’s life circumstances could lead to hasty decisions that may be regretted later.
While suspected severe cases of SAD should be diagnosed and monitored by your health professional, the good news is that it is possible to prevent or minimize the effect of SAD by making these five simple habits as part of the winter experience.
1) Take Vitamin D. This vitamin has been long been known for its critical function in calcium absorption and healthy bones. It is also acts like a hormone, so low levels of vitamin D have been linked to a higher incidence of SAD symptoms. Southeast Alaskans are especially susceptible to Vitamin D deficiency because year-round cloud cover and the low angle of sunlight means that there is less opportunity for Vitamin D to be naturally synthesized by the skin. Vitamin D levels can be tested at the medical clinics and local health fairs, and inexpensive supplements are available at local grocery and health food stores. Other excellent sources of Vitamin D include fish liver and cod liver oil. Check with a medical provider before beginning supplementation.
2) Discover light therapy. Adequate light exposure during the shortened days of winter is important for assisting with mood problems. Light boxes are available at local stores and online, and many doctors in town can provide recommendations for which devices and light intensities are the most effective. Dr. Kane recommends using light boxes first thing in the morning to simulate a natural sunrise. “Ideally, use the ‘happy’ light until there is natural light,” advised Dr. Kane. Another form of light therapy is to simply take advantage of daylight hours and go outdoors. Outdoor light on cloudy days can still be more effective than indoor lights. Reflected light from snow can be therapeutic as well, so playing in the snow can be beneficial in more ways than one.
3) Stay physically active. “Some people think when it gets dark, all there is to do is watch TV,” said Dr. Kane. “However, all it takes is some creativity to find non-couch activities indoors.” Winter is the perfect time to find new ways to move that are enjoyable. Juneau offers a wide range of indoor and outdoor sports and activities. Snow enthusiasts enjoy world-class skiing at Eagle Crest and at the glacier. Dancing is another great activity that combines music and movement in a social setting, and rock climbing facilities can be found throughout the city. Many gyms even have light boxes for their members to soak up some lumens while working out.
4) Eat well. Some may notice increased cravings for sweets and starches in winter. Ironically, foods high in carbohydrates are available in plentiful quantities during the holidays and can lead to overeating and unhealthy food choices during the winter months. Incorporate as many nutrient-packed foods that are satisfying and delicious when shopping for holiday goodies. Root vegetables and winter squash are hearty, flavorful vegetables that are both comforting and easy to prepare. When indulging at holiday functions, eat slower, savor the food more, and stop eating when you notice signals of fullness from your body.
5) Avoid isolation. Make an effort to socialize by keeping in touch with loved ones, or meet new people by getting involved in community activities. Dr. Kane points out that in Juneau and other Alaskan communities, winter is a time when there are more opportunities to get together with others. “We see more potlucks, events sponsored by different organizations, and great music lineups.” Different clubs reunite in winter for cooking lessons, dance classes, learning arts and crafts, practicing a new language, quilting, music, rock climbing, and much more. Winter is a great time to be a local!
Celebrate the seasonality of this special part o the world by taking time for self-reflection, spending time with loved ones, and discovering the light side of winter amidst the darkness.
• Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder, the Revised Edition, by Norman E. Rosenthal, MD.
• “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” article by Dr. Emily Kane at www.DrEmilyKane.com
• “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/seasonal-affective-disorder
• Jennifer Nu is a freelance writer based in Juneau, Alaska. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org