Is winter bringing you down? You’re not alone. Studies show that about 15% of Canadians get the winter blues, while 2-3 % experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). This affliction typically starts in the fall and persists through the winter months, lasting until March.
What are the winter blues? Is it the same as SAD?
The winter blues is a mild form of SAD. Those with the blues feel very moody and tired, often without reason. They may also sleep too much and have low energy. A major cause may be the lack of exposure to sunlight during winter which affects hormone levels in the body. A gland in the brain produces melatonin during the night and in periods of reduced light (as in winter) and causes us to feel drowsy. Meanwhile, serotonin is a chemical in the brain that regulates mood and behavior. Decreased levels of serotonin is seen during winter months when there is less sunlight due to shorter days.
Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD, on the other hand is a recurring type of depression. SAD tends to occur more in adults and affects more women than men. People with SAD feel the winter blues but to a greater degree. A key difference is that SAD sufferers are too depressed to be able to work or function in their day to day lives. While it is common for the disorder to affect people in winter, there is a form of SAD that comes in summer starting in the spring. This why aside from lack of sunlight, doctors will also take into account a person’s genetic predisposition to depression when diagnosing for SAD. It has been found that 13-17% of people who develop SAD have an immediate family member with this disorder.
How to prevent and cope with the winter blues
- Recognize the signs – People with the winter blues will:
- have mood problems such as sadness, boredom, and irritability.
- be lethargic (lacking in energy). They will tend to sleep too much.
- have a craving for carbohydrates (bread, pasta, sweets) or generally have a change in appetite.
- lose interest in social activities.
- feel stressed and tense.
If you experience any or all of these symptoms, don’t ignore them. You don’t have to suffer in silence. The first step to finding a solution is admitting that there is a problem.
- Consult a doctor – Your family doctor should be able to check if there’s something wrong with you physically. A blood test may be conducted to check your blood count or Vitamin D levels to rule out causes of these symptoms, such as anemia or thyroid dysfunction. Depending on the findings, your doctor will be able to prescribe treatment, medication, supplements or a healthier diet.
- Get enough sunlight – Go outside during the day. Take a walk during lunch break or play with your children in the snow. Natural light will help boost serotonin production and your overall mood. You can also try getting light therapy. This requires sitting near a special kind of lamp for about a half an hour a day. If your doctor prescribes light therapy for you, you can try it for free at Winnipeg Public Library branches.
- Stay active – Exercise of at least 30 minutes every day is found to boost serotonin and endorphin (chemicals in the brain that block pain and induce feelings of pleasure) levels in the body. This translates to a natural boost in your mood after you walk, jog, dance or do aerobic exercises. Read How to stay active in winter to get more ideas.
- Eat healthy – Don’t give in to urges to eat starchy or sweet food. Make it a point to have a balanced diet of proteins, fruits and vegetables, and whole grains. Structure your eating patterns by eating three meals a day (no snacking in between), around the same time every day. This will ensure that your body will have the proper amount of nutrients to keep you feeling good.
- Talk to someone – Talk to your partner or friend. Sometimes talking about your feelings can relieve you of burden. A supportive person can also give you the encouragement that you need to start making a change or start seeking treatment.
Is it more than just the blues?
How do you know that it’s SAD and not just the winter blues?
- After doing all six tips above you still feel down.
- The feeling is debilitating. You can’t perform your everyday tasks anymore.
- The feeling of hopelessness and helplessness persists.
- It is affecting your work and relationships.
- You are having suicidal thoughts.
Any or all of these symptoms means you should talk to an expert immediately. Your family doctor should be able to refer you to a psychiatrist or other mental health professionals. They will be able to prescribe the proper treatment for you. This may involve light therapy, counselling, medication or a combination of these. Call your doctor or check CMHA Mental Health Resources for more information.
Sources: Don’t be SAD, Laurie McPherson, Winnipeg Health Region; Combating the winter blues (presentation slides), Blaine Roberts, English Online; More than just the winter blues? Rush.edu; Seasonal Affective Disorder, Canada.com; Seasonal Affective Disorder, Canadian Mental Health Association; and What are endorphins? Tom Scheve, How stuff works. Retrieved December 10, 2018.
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