Elisa Shackelton: Feeling the wintertime blues?
December 7, 2007
Every year, I dread when the clocks move back, because it triggers feelings of sluggishness and lethargy, making it really difficult for me to get excited about the holidays, as well as concentrate at work. If you are experiencing similar feelings, you might suffer from the wintertime blues, also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, which usually begins when the days start getting shorter and colder weather keeps us indoors more. People with SAD dread October because the clocks move back an hour and, in a single day, autumn twilight becomes dark night.
Symptoms of SAD can include depression, brain fog, easy sleepiness, carb cravings and weight gain. At the very heart of the wintertime blues is a lack of the “feel-good” brain chemical serotonin. When the shorter winter days in the Northern Hemisphere arrive, the serotonin you stored up in the sunny summer months starts declining. At the same time, your brain’s stores of sleep-inducing melatonin increase, making you feel like a hibernating bear.
Women are the major victims of wintertime blues because all women start life with less serotonin in their brains than men. If you’re someone who experiences SAD, you need to do everything you can to stimulate your brain to make more serotonin, which includes lighting up your life, exercising and consuming more “good” carbohydrates throughout the day.
Steps you can take to manage the wintertime blues include:
Regular physical activity helps fight fatigue and depression, especially if you exercise during the day or near light sources.
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Find an outdoor hobby that you can enjoy throughout the winter months such as skating, skiing or walking.
Seek the sun
Go outside and walk briskly with your face in the light – even if it’s overcast – for 20 minutes every day. Both the light and the exercise will kick up your serotonin levels. Of course, if the wind-chill outside is going to deep-freeze your face, find a health club with windows, or locate a treadmill or stationary bike in the brightest light instead.
Even weak sunlight and light reflected off snow can increase your exposure to light and help ease symptoms of SAD. Arrange your home and office to maximize your exposure to light, and look for sunlit windows for reading, eating, or working.
Let there be light
Keep your curtains or blinds pulled open all the way so sunlight (or daylight, even on cloudy days) can pour into your living/work space.
Paint your walls light colors – they’ll reflect the light.
Increase the wattage of your light bulbs. Choose subcompact fluorescent bulbs, which don’t have the annoying flicker the old fluorescent tubes once had, and also use 25 percent less energy than a standard bulb, and fit in most fixtures.
Take a holiday
We’ve all experienced long Colorado winters, so if you can, go south for a week’s holiday during the winter to enjoy a dose of sunlight.
Eat a small amount of high-quality carbohydrates with every meal and as snacks throughout your day. Fruits, nuts, veggies and whole grains are among the best choices, as are beans, soups and oatmeal. You need a little carbohydrate at every meal for your brain to produce serotonin.
Be aware of your moods
Self-awareness can alleviate some of the feelings of distress during these seasons. Be aware of your moods and energy level and attempt to maintain perspective.
Premenstrual aggravation of wintertime blues is very common. If you notice a worsening in the week or so before your period, understand that your hormones are taking your serotonin levels on a roller-coaster ride: when your estrogen drops, as it does in the week before your period, your “feel-good” serotonin goes right along with it.
Communicating and interacting regularly with others can help minimize feelings of loneliness, depression and isolation. E-mail or call friends and family members regularly; volunteer for a local organization; invite someone to share meals or go to the movies with you; etc.
SAD is still not fully understood, but statistics indicate that as many as half a million people in the United States may have winter depression. Another 10 percent to 20 percent may experience mild SAD. If you are experiencing feelings that are greater than mild depression, do not be afraid to ask for help. Talk to your friends, your family, and your doctor. Using your support network can help decrease your feelings of isolation or depression.
For more information, visit or contact Elisa at the CSU Moffat County Extension Office, 539 Barclay, 824-9180.