Word is around my neck of the woods in Central Oregon that this winter is set to rival last year’s (and last year was BAD)…while it is still decent outside I am choosing to be in denial about this, but inevitably I know the snow and the rain is right around the corner. And no, I am not a great skier despite living in Central Oregon, so winter can be a bit of a drag to put it simply.
As I write this, I am listening to the pouring rain across the mountains in Silverton, Oregon– where I maintain a practice. It is damp, dark, and dreary, but thank goodness, the people are wonderful and the town is charming in all seasons. So too is the lovely town of Sisters, Oregon– the home base of my practice.
Irregardless of your optimism, winter may still be a struggle and you are certainly not alone.
Let’s talk about winter blues and seasonal depression- also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Winter blues affect many of us and can be characterized by decreased energy, motivation, a dampened mood, and weight gain. Seasonal depression or seasonal affective disorder however can be downright debilitating characterized by major depression, hopelessness, elevated anxiety, sleep disturbance, and fatigue among other symptoms.
Researchers in evolutionary psychiatry have theorized that winter blues and to an extent seasonal depression may have been our body’s way of “slowing down” when resources were few in order that we can preserve our energy to last through the winter months. Eighty-percent of SAD sufferers are women and more predominately, women of child-bearing age. This has been theorized to be due to the high energy demands of pregnancy and the need for energy to be conserved. While this might all make a bit of sense, we live in a 24/7 society where “slowing down” is often not an option for many of us.
The physiology of SAD is multi-faceted; however, when the dark days of winter descend on us, our sleep-wake cycle also known as our circadian rhythm can often be disrupted. Melatonin, the neurotransmitter responsible in part for making us sleepy can become “phase delayed” meaning that it is being secreted on the wrong times of day. Evidence has also shown that serotonin, another very important neurotransmitter that supports our mood and regulates anxiety, may be in part dependent on light activation. Blue light in particular is transmitted from the back of our retina to the suprachiasmatic nucleus and then to the raphe nuclei where serotonin neurons originate. When light runs short in the winter, the raphe nucleus is not triggered as often and serotonin production may be diminished.
Practical Ways to Combat SAD
- Exercise increases serotonin! Bundle up and exercise outside ideally. If you do go to a gym or stay home try to do so in daylight and near a window.
- Think about trying a winter sport. Yes, I will work on my ski legs.
- Soak up the sun whenever possible. If you are fortunate to have sunlight, try to spend a minimum of 15 minutes outside. If the sun is not an option, think about investing in a SAD lamp such as this one
- Laugh and be merry. Enough said. But limit the alcohol- alcohol is a depressant!
- Stay centered. Practice meditation, which in itself can improve our brain’s signaling and vitality.
- Eat protein. Amino acids such as L-tryptophan (commonly found in our Thanksgiving turkey), are precursors to neurotransmitters such as serotonin and melatonin.
- Be sure to take your Vitamin D and get your Vitamin D tested! People can be chronically low in Vitamin D especially in the winter months. I advise taking at least 1000 iu daily of Vitamin D3 daily although some people may need much more to restore healthy levels.
- Seek help from a healthcare provider or counselor. Seasonal affective disorder can be debilitating. Medication, supplementation, and psychotherapy can help with managing symptoms.
Wishing everyone a safe and joyful winter season. Be kind to yourself.
Audry Van Houweling, Owner & Founder She Soars Psychiatry, Sisters/Silverton