Working through the winter blues

from the American Institute for Cancer Research

Many people feel more anxious and depressed during the winter months. For some people, these mood changes are so severe that they interfere with life activities and enjoyment. Unfortunately, people affected by the syndrome “seasonal affective disorder” (SAD) often don’t realize that it can be treated through several different light and lifestyle approaches.

Symptoms of SAD include sadness and sluggishness, particularly in the afternoon and evening. There may also be increased desire for sleep, increased appetite and carbohydrate cravings - which often lead to weight gain. These symptoms occur in winter and fade in spring and summer. Official diagnosis of the syndrome requires that these changes occur over three or more winters. Researchers believe that changing levels of sunlight affect the body’s production of serotonin, a hormone which seems to promote positive mood.

Treatment with bright light is now documented in medical journals to cause remission of symptoms in about 50 percent of people who suffer from the syndrome. Treatment involves exposure to “full spectrum” light for 30 to 60 minutes on a regular basis. Note that several different lighting devices are approved for the treatment, but the lights used for indoor tanning purposes are not among them.

Researchers are also looking at the impact of diet and lifestyles on seasonal affective disorder. Reduced sunlight causes the body to produce less vitamin D, which some suggest could lead to reduced levels of the mood hormone serotonin. More research on this is needed, but a study in the journal of Psychopharmacology suggests that 400 IU of vitamin D daily might improve mood. This amount is recommended for general good health for adults aged 51 to 70. Higher doses offered no further mood improvement.

Some people seem especially sensitive to changes in dietary carbohydrate and protein balance. Eating carbohydrate leads to higher levels of the amino acid tryptophan in the brain, which in turn leads to greater synthesis of mood-enhancing serotonin.

Carbohydrate cravings can cause some people to increase their intake of sweets, but nibbling cookies and candy all day promotes neither a better emotional state nor overall health and energy. Instead, it may help make carbohydrate-rich whole grain, fruits and beans a major part of each meal. Snacking on these foods throughout the day to avoid going more than three or four hours without eating may also help.

Winter means a drop in activity level for many people, especially now during COVID-19. This decline may worsen feelings of depression. A large body of research has been documenting psychological benefits derived from regular exercise, which could be as simple as a regular walking program.

It’s important for people to know that there may be real reasons for “winter blues” and that the symptoms experienced may be relieved or reduced with relatively simple measures. Regular exercise and balanced meals are recommended for good health anyway and may help scare off those winter blues.

Anyone suffering from winter depression who is not helped by these measures should call their local family physician about possible light therapy or other alternatives to help ease the blues.

For more information, call Veterans Memorial Hospital in Waukon at 563-568-3411.