If you are like me and many people living in northern climates, the winter months with their overcast skies, lack of sunlight and cold temperatures and can bring on the ''Winter Blues.'' February seems to always be my most difficult month. By then, winter just seems to have dragged on long enough. I find myself sleeping more, eating more and I have trouble getting motivated to do everyday things especially in the evenings after work. I just want to hibernate. If you are experiencing some of these symptoms too, we are not alone. According to the American Psychiatric Association, 25 percent of people living in middle to northern latitudes of the U.S. experience winter doldrums. The more severe form of this condition is called Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. SAD can bring on depression, anxiety, mood changes, and loss of libido as well as the sleep problems, lethargy and overeating.
How does SAD develop? I remember one of my professors in college saying, ''We are light beings,'' meaning people need exposure to sunlight to be healthy, and she is exactly right. Studies show that exposure to sunlight causes chemical changes in our bodies. You may have heard that when exposed to sunlight our bodies produce vitamin D which helps with calcium absorption and to build strong bones. Similarly, lack of sunlight exposure causes the body to produce more of a hormone called melatonin, believed to be linked to SAD.
So how do we shake those winter blues? Since studies show lack of sunlight exposure to be a major cause of SAD, make an effort to expose yourself to more light. Take advantage of those infrequently sunny winter days and walk outside. According to Gannett at Cornell University, exposure to early morning sunlight is especially helpful to chase the winter blues. If you are unable to walk outside, some people find great relief from light boxes. These special devices emit high intensity light and produce effects similar to natural sunlight exposure. (Ask about them at your pharmacy or medical supply store.) For those who vacation during the winter, choose a sunny destination during your most difficult winter month.
Regular exercise is another way to combat winter blues. Exercise also changes the chemical makeup of our bodies improving our mood, reducing stress and giving us more energy to tackle our everyday tasks. Aerobic exercise is especially helpful since it increases serotonin, another hormone, which helps improve our mood. Running, brisk walking, snow shoeing, skiing and sledding will meet your aerobic requirement as well as get you out in the sun light.
Often the winter blues cause us to overeat and gain weight. Just when we are trying to shed the extra pounds from Christmas, we find ourselves craving junk food and sweets. Strategies to help combat these cravings are to eat more complex carbohydrates like whole grains, wheat pasta and brown rice. These foods take longer to break down in the body and satisfy your hunger longer. Adding more fruit and juice to your diet is a healthy way to satisfy your sweet craving.
If you find yourself sleeping the day and night away during the winter, more sleep is not going to make you feel better. Try to get yourself on a regular sleep schedule, rising at the same time each morning and avoid napping during the day. Certain meditation techniques can also help boost your energy levels.
Sharing your feeling with others or getting your mind off of your own worries and focusing it elsewhere is another way to get rid of those depressed feelings. For seniors who have difficulty leaving their home in the winter, consider volunteering for Office for the Aging telephone reassurance program. There are many seniors like you who would appreciate a call to break up their day and let them know they are not alone. Adopting a soldier is another way for seniors to get their mind off their winter confinement. Many soldiers do not have a close circle of family or friends who keep in contact while they are overseas. They would appreciate letters, email, newspaper clippings and care packages from home and you will feel better knowing you are helping someone else through a difficult and stressful time. To find out how you can adopt a soldier, visit www.adoptaussoldier.org/ or contact your local church, American Legion or VFW post.
If these simple ideas and techniques do not alleviate your winter blues, be sure to contact your physician. Some forms of SAD and depression may only be alleviated with medical treatment and/or may be a symptom of another medical condition. For more information about Seasonal Affective Disorder, contact your physician's office or visit the National Institutes of Mental Health website at www.nimh.nih.gov. And don't forget to call Office for the Aging for help and resources in our area. We are here to help you!