I am the mother of one precocious preschooler, a set of adorable twins and the wearer of many hats-- mommy, wife, belly dancer, teacher, library student and writer. With all that on my plate, occasionally, I have time for a workout. You can also find a few more of my witty asides at Lifestyles of the Destitute and Obscure

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Winter Depression

In the spring and summer, I greet the day before 7:00 am, ready to accomplish great feats of housework and parenting, prepared to plant and tend a garden, capable of writing until well after midnight, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.  In the fall and winter, uh, not so much.  I’d rather eat for about a week straight and then hibernate until March.  Oh, but I have children who’d like dinner.  Sound familiar?  No, you are not crazy (though the jury’s still out for me) you might be one of millions who suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder, or appropriately shortened to SAD.

SAD is a condition brought on by the change of seasons, usually beginning early to mid-autumn and lasting until spring.  Symptoms not unlike those of conventional depression, include:

  • significant weight gain
  • social withdrawal and difficulty in relationships
  • disruption of sleep patterns, usually sleeping more
  • inability to concentrate or make even small decisions
  • decrease in sex drive (recent birth of twins notwithstanding)
  • lack of interest in things one used to enjoy (see item above)
  • general lack of feelings of well-being and loss of energy

During the winter, not only are sunlight hours fewer, the light is less intense, because the Earth is farther from the sun.  In other words, those of us with SAD are a lot like plants, functioning on less light and not growing.  That would be fine if we were plants, but instead, we are expected to act like human beings — go to work, take care of family responsibilities and, hardest of all, get our Christmas shopping done.  Perhaps I should have started back in August, if there’s going to be any hope of presents under the tree.  The only bonus to SAD sufferers is that in spring, they can look back on winter and believe it was all just a really terrible dream.  But it all comes right back again the following fall, like another teenage vampire series on TV.

There is no cure for needing more sunlight than what you’re getting, besides chasing an endless summer around the globe, but let’s face it, that’s not the lifestyle most of us are able to wrangle.  There are, however, ways to make it better. Light therapy, medications (pharmaceutical as well as naturopathic) a sensible diet, and exercise all go a long way to helping the SAD sufferer make it through the winter, perhaps not as their sunny summer-self, but at least someone your children may recognize as functional.

Light Therapy:
Because SAD is a form of depression triggered by lack of intense sunlight, the best way to keep it at bay is to turn on the light– and not just any light.  A light-box sufficient to supplant summer sunlight must be 10,000 lumens.  How bright is this?  By comparison, most offices only offer about 400 lumens — no wonder cubicle life is so depressing!   A lightbox is a high-powered fluorescent light that needs to be fairly close, within a few feet, of the place where you are sitting and working.

Pharmaceuticals and Naturopathy:
Some people find using prescription anti-depressants or naturopathic remedies helpful during the winter.  Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI’s) including Prozac and Zoloft are commonly used for both regular and seasonal depression.  St. John’s Wort, SAMe and 5-HTP are all natural supplements that I have found helpful in battling the winter beast.  As with all herbs, there is no standardization process, so one brand may not be as potent as another.  Many herbalists know the best quality brands and proper potency for these herbs.
Studies of depression also have shown the importance of a diet high in Omega-3’s.  Dietary sources include flaxseed, walnuts, avocados and fish, especially salmon.  Of course, with fish sources and fish oil-derived supplements, be aware of mercury levels.

Exercise:
Do it.  Period.  At first, at a low to moderate level, and then increase your activity during the summer months, so that you’ve raised the bar by the following winter.  Almost every health expert and psychologist on the planet will tell you how beneficial exercise is for improving one’s mood and overall health; it is an essential natural anti-depressant.  It is even more necessary for those who have SAD and, as a result, struggle with weight gain and poor eating habits.  And, to boot, it can help boost the immune system and get you a better night’s sleep—because being sick and tired and depressed is a complete drag.  The best possible exercise for those with SAD is, of course, to get outside on a sunny day.  An exercise machine in front of a light box would be the next best thing.

So, this is how I live my live 4-5 months of the year.  It’s doable, but it sure ain’t summer livin’.  And there’s nothing like the good news that it’s time for catchers and pitchers to report to Spring Training– summertime’s on its way.

Personal checklist— does this sound familiar?

  • Are holiday social functions really painful and draining for you, even though you enjoy summer barbeques?
  • Do you gain more than just a few pounds during the holidays, really craving carbs and sweets?
  • Do you feel that January is ten times as long as July, despite the fact that they are both only 31 days long?
  • Are you unable to accomplish simple daily tasks during the winter months?
  • Do you find even the smallest decisions to be overwhelming?
  • Do you like yourself better during the summer?

round, rainy tunnel photo by Salvatore Vuono
woman in front of the light-box courtesy of The Sunbox Company
happy family photo courtesy of photostock.com

For less depressing health-related reading:

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Comments (3)

  1. Andrea Laszlo 11/20/2012 at 11:45 pm

    Great advice for a tough time of year for many…the exercise piece works for me anytime!

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  3. Marybrth 11/13/2012 at 6:06 pm

    Allison-
    Thanks for providing practical information and reassurance for those suffering with SAD. It always helps to know that others can identify with similar struggles. I can attest to the fact that getting excercise is a HUGE component to maintaining mental health!