Franklin & Marshall College Franklin & Marshall College

February 2011 Wellness Tip

Chasing Away Winter's Blues

As the days grow shorter and the weather gets colder, around one in 20 people prepare for their annual battle with "the winter blues."  The gray days of the season may even spark a more serious condition, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a recurring depression that affects individuals mostly between September and April, peaking in December through February.

Symptoms may include difficulty concentrating, low energy and fatigue, a decreased interest in daily activities, moodiness, irritability, a tendency to overeat (particularly carbohydrates), and need for increased sleep. Some sufferers show signs of a weakened immune system during the winter, and are more vulnerable to infections and other illnesses.

The exact cause of the “winter blues” and SAD is unknown, but it’s suspected that an increased level of melatonin in the blood could be a factor. Melatonin enhances the need and desire for sleep.  During the colder, darker months, the body produces more of it.

There are several things you can do to help chase away "the winter blues"; however, if your symptoms are debilitating, seek advice from your doctor.

Starting a new activity or taking a class on something you've always wanted to do will make you less likely to fall prey to depression, by occupying yourself with things that excite you.   Join a singing group, or take a winter vacation.

Remind your body what those hot summer days really feel like, and visualize their return by using a sauna. Many people report feeling better if they stay warm.

When energy seems to be waning, turn to light exercise, especially if you can get outdoors. Even a brisk 10-minute walk in the sunshine will elevate endorphin levels.

If you wear eyeglasses, remove them for at least 20 minutes and expose yourself to natural sunlight. Eyeglasses, and especially sunglasses, can block the entry of sunlight into the eyes and slow down its effects on the body.  Arrange your home and workplace to receive more sunlight.

Sleep well, but less. Restricting excessive sleep can help boost mood and energy levels.

Watch sweets and alcohol. Research suggests that people with SAD process sugar differently in winter than in summer (or with light therapy). Cutting down on simple sugars can help stabilize your serotonin levels.

Several studies have linked depression with a high intake of caffeine. They show that depressed patients tend to consume fairly large amounts of caffeine. Try substituting herbal tea, decaf coffee or mineral water instead of drinking coffee and other caffeinated beverages.

Finally, write down your 10 best autumn and winter memories in a beautiful notebook to share with your friends and children. It may not be that the seasons are your enemy so much as a lack of light – and that can be tackled!

Cindi Dinger, on behalf of the Wellness Committee

*Information compiled in part from the websites of Highmark Blueshield, Mental Health America, and National Institute of Mental Health.