The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Heidi Zemach
For The LOG 

Surviving SAD or winter blues


Heidi Zemach | For The LOG

Seward Psychologist J. Craig Williamson, discusses Seasonal Affective Disorder at Seaview Community Services.

Not everybody cries "yippee" when winter sets in. Some of us want to dig a hole in our beds, and climb in like a hibernating bear until it's over with. With the colder, dark days and long nights, inevitably, comes the dreaded Winter Blues, and its relation at the end of the spectrum, Seasonal Affective Disorder.

For many Alaskans, emotional symptoms of the winter blues resolve naturally. They simply dissipate within a few days or weeks. But those who experience symptoms of depression for longer than two weeks, and do so seasonally for two consecutive years, may have the fairly common mood disorder called Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD, said J. Craig Williamson, a psychologist who practices at SeaView Community Services. He sees people with this condition every winter.

Typical symptoms of SAD include feeling blue, moody, and irritable, rejected, hostile, angry, tired or sluggish. They tend to sleep longer, or want to, and crave carbohydrates. SAD is classified by the American Psychiatric Association as a sub-type of depression. If left untreated, it can lead people to experience many of the same symptoms of depression, Williamson said.

Not all of those who seek professional help in the winter are actually suffering from SAD though, Williamson said. People with depression often feel worse in the winter, and some people just have more difficulty handling stress or grief during the holidays, depending on their own resiliency and general outlook on life.

What happens is that the lack of daylight causes a shift in the hormones that our bodies produce – increased production in melatonin, which regulates our sleep cycles; and reduced production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter involved in mood regulation and associated with feelings of well-being and happiness, appetite control, sleep cycles and other brain functions.

As a psychologist, Williamson is intrigued by the amount of variation among individuals in their response to SAD, and by the fact that while one method of treating it that greatly helps one person, it may not help others at all. For some, commonly prescribing anti-depressants, used alone or with light therapy helps greatly, while for others it may not. Then again, it's difficult to tell as depression medications can take several weeks before the patient feels a benefit, and by then they may be getting accustomed to the diminishing light, Williamson said.

What seems clear, is that exercise such as swimming, skiing, going to the gym or even just walking 30 minutes a day often helps people significantly, Williamson said. Adjusting ones' sleep cycles can also be beneficial. He suggests people figure out how many hours of sleep they need to feel refreshed the next morning, then stick to the same regular sleep schedule. Everyone should get an annual physical exam and a complete blood lab work to help rule out physical conditions like diabetes and hyperactive thyroid that share some of the same symptoms as SAD. Tests also are available to tell ones' level of vitamin D deficiency.

Light therapy seems to be the best cure of all, though.

Using light to relieve the symptoms of SAD is considered the gold standard treatment recommended by the American Medical Association, and studies have repeatedly shown it to better than antidepressant drugs, said Dr. Brian Orr, who has a private practice just outside Seward.

For mild SAD, or winter blues, getting up and walking outside for 10 to 20 minutes on a bright winter morning, or sitting in front of a sunlit window may be all the light therapy needed, Dr. Orr says. But if that isn't enough, spending 30 minutes a day with a light box near from ones face every morning could do the trick. The best one emits either 10,000 lux of standard full-spectrum white light, or 750 lux of low-intensity blue-enriched white light, according to AMA. Both are widely available on the Internet.

Dawn/dusk simulators also are popular, and seem to be effective for those with milder blues symptoms, Dr. Orr said. but he would not recommend them for people with moderate to severe SAD, as the research on these are still in the nascent stages.

Natural treatments include supplements such as 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), pyridoxine (vitamin B6), and cholecalciferol (vitamin D3). The foods Dr. Orr typically recommends that contain some of these are tuna, lentils, bell peppers, strawberries, broccoli, Crimini mushrooms, shitake mushrooms, spinach and pumpkin seeds.

"I've found some clinical effectiveness in changing dietary habits to focus on supplying the nutrients noted above through food, alongside 5-HTP supplementation," said Dr. Orr. "However, research in this area is sorely lacking, and it remains to be clarified – to my mind at least – whether it's the nutrients in the foods garnering results, or whether it might be the distraction from and elimination of unhealthy dietary habits, or perhaps even the dietary counseling itself that produces the desirable effects."

Self-medication through alcohol use is common, but is not a very good idea, adds psychologist Williamson. It also hurts rather than helps ones' sleep patterns. Those experiencing feelings of helplessness or hopelessness, or suicidal thoughts definitely should visit a physician for help, rather than self-medicate. The worst thing anyone can do for self-treatment, however, is to isolate oneself. Getting involved in social activities, or spending time with friends or family often helps keep the winter blues at bay. After that, talk (cognitive behavioral) therapy can sometimes help people plan to their individual strategies, or cope with the condition they are experiencing until the daylight returns.

On the bright side, some longtime Alaskans say that the winter equinox, on Dec. 21, seems to be a real turning point for them, Williamson said. It's as if those extra few seconds of daylight, or perhaps just the thought that the days will grow progressively longer, seems to significantly lift their spirits. Or perhaps it's just that their bodies have had enough time by then to adjust to the darkness.


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