Are You SAD? Beating the Winter Time Blues

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Are you often sad during the winter? People have talked about those blues since before the Civil War.

But in the last 30 years, doctors have officially recognized the winter blues as a named, medical condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. The good news is that you can beat it! 

Like millions of Americans, Missy Peters's mood changed with the seasons.

"Generally I'm a happy person," she said. But during the winter, Peters gets the blues, or SAD, which produces symptoms similar to hibernation.

"You look outside, you're not as motivated to do things. You'd kind-of would rather just sit around and eat," Peters said.

Day and Night Mix Up

Decreased sunlight during the winter is the main reason why people develop SAD, because less daylight can disrupt our circadian rythym, also known as our body clock.

Melatonin, a hormone which makes us feel tired, is triggered by darkness and reaches its highest levels at night. People like Peters also have increased melatonin levels during the day.

On the opposite side, the neurotransmitter seratonin, which is triggered by sunlight, makes us feel happy. But people with SAD have low levels of seratonin.

Dr. Wayne Reynolds, with Sentara Gloucester Medical Arts, said the disorder severely affects five percent of Americans. Another 20 percent have a mild case and don't realize it.

"Interestingly, a lot of people put on weight and we've always sort of blamed it on the winter months, people are less active in the winter months," he said.

"But people with SAD have a craving for carbohydrates and tend to overeat during the winter months and end up putting some weight on as a result of this medical condition," he continued.

Women are more often affected than men and the disorder is more prevalent in northern climates. But Reynolds said these people don't need to suffer any longer.

"So many people tend to ignore it and chalk it off as the winter blues," he said. "And what's important is there are options and there are treatments for it."

Light Therapy

Light therapy is a very effective treatment and involves sitting in front of a specialized light box for 30 minutes a day. The box needs to have a power of 10,000 lux, which is more than 20 times stronger than the average light bulb.

"It's like sitting outside, sitting at the beach or under the sun, it doesn't emit any heat but it's just a very bright light kind-of like your own personal box of sunshine!"  Peters said.

Beware though: Tanning beds are not an acceptable treatment because they emit ultraviolet rays which can cause melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer.

Dr. David Pariser, 2008 president of the American Academy of Dermatology, said there is never a good reason to step into a tanning bed.

"The World Health Organization has classified ultraviolet tanning equipment as a known carcinogen," he explained. "It's just clearly the case, despite arguments from the tanning industry, that tanning causes skin cancer."

So say "no" to the tanning bed, but "yes" to the light box. And in addition to the light box, other ways to brighten up your life include:

  • Using higher wattage light bulbs,
  • Installing a sky light,
  • Sitting closer to the window,
  • Trimming branches that block sunlight and
  • Simply opening the blinds.

If you have SAD and work in a dark environment, like the CBN Newsroom which has no windows, make it a point to spend a few minutes outside every hour or so.

And if you are planning a vacation, Dr. Reynolds suggested going somewhere tropical.

"One of the other recommendations is sometimes - and people have been doing this for years and not realizing it really helps them - but take a winter vacation and get down to the Caribbean, especially if you live in those northern climates," he said.

Get Up and Move

Although it's tempting for people with SAD to reach for their comforter, they should reach for their gym bag instead. Exercise is another great tool for fighting the effects of SAD.

A cardiovascular workout pumps oxygen into the brain, making us alert and energetic. Exercise also releases endorphins, neurotransmitters that create a feeling of euphoria.

Amanda Letterman knows first-hand about the healing properties of exercise.

"If there's a day I'm having a bad day, I'm stressed out, I'm tired, sometimes working out reverses all of that," she said. "So I come into the gym I forget about my problems. I concentrate on what I'm doing physically and it helps me mentally."

So if you suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, a few lifestyle changes can help you enjoy winter. And Spring will be here before you know it! 

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Lorie  Johnson

Lorie Johnson

CBN News Medical Reporter

Lorie Johnson reports on the latest information about health and wellness. Since medicine is constantly changing, she makes sure CBN News viewers are up-to-date on what they need to know in order to live a healthy life.  Follow Lorie on Twitter @LorieCBN and "like" her at Facebook.com/LorieJohnsonCBN.