Many of us don’t look forward to winter months when days are shorter and the weather is often cold, damp or dreary. The reduced amount of sunshine, fresh air and outdoor exercise that we enjoy in warmer months can bring on mild mood changes often referred to as the “winter blues.”
But for some, long winters can cause a type of "seasonal" blues that can have a greater effect on our mood and ability to function.
Symptoms usually start slowly in the late autumn and continue through winter and may include:
- Lack of energy, feeling tired or sleeping more than usual
- Reduced ability to concentrate
- Increased appetite, cravings for sweet or starchy foods and weight gain
- Loss of interest in work or other activities
- Social withdrawal
- Unhappiness and irritability
- Feelings of hopelessness
The exact cause "seasonal" blues is unknown but researchers believe that light and its effect on the hormone melatonin may play a part. Melatonin helps regulate your internal body clock (circadian rhythm) that lets you know when you should be asleep or awake. Since melatonin is secreted in the dark, you have more of it in your bloodstream during winter than summer. Researchers studying the effects of melatonin know that increased melatonin can make you feel drowsy and sluggish.
Reduced sunlight can also cause a drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood when deficient.
There are steps you can take to manage mild symptoms:
1. Light Therapy – Try to get as much exposure to natural sunlight throughout the day or use a special “light box” that is 10 times the intensity of regular household lighting. Scientists speculate that people often benefit from light therapy because light shuts off melatonin production.
2. Dietary Changes – It is thought that carbohydrate cravings are the result of low levels of serotonin. However you can support normal serotonin levels by eating foods containing tryptophan--a precursor to serotonin. Foods rich in tryptophan include turkey, milk, and egg whites. You can also try 5HTP (5-Hydroxytryptophan) supplements—a close cousin to naturally occurring tryptophan that promotes healthy serotonin levels.
3. Limit Alcohol and Caffeine – While it may be tempting to reach for a cup of coffee for a boost of energy, in the long run it often exacerbates your symptoms of anxiety and tension. Alcohol is a depressant which can further lower your mood. Try an herbal tea which contains little or no caffeine and can enhance your mood.
4. Get Regular Exercise – Some evidence suggests that regular exercise improves mood and energy levels.
5. Change in Latitude – "Seasonal" blues rarely affect people living within about 30 degrees of the equator so a seasonal vacation to a sunnier climate may be just what you need. For most people, it takes two or three days of bright sunshine to feel an improvement.
Whatever you do, be sure to discuss your symptoms with your doctor, especially if they worsen or feelings of sadness become overwhelming.
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