Winter can be a tough time. Days are shorter. Nights are longer. And here in Utah, the inversion makes it feel like we rarely see the sun. That can lead many to experience the "wintertime blues" or, as it is officially known, seasonal affective disorder or SAD.
"Sunlight triggers photosensitive cells in the eye that impact the brain's chemistry that are key to well-being," says Jason Hunziker, MD, chief of the Division of Adult Psychology for University of Utah Health Care. "When that sun is gone, it can lead to feelings of depression."
When SAD hits though, you don't have to suffer until the days are longer and the temperatures are warmer. "There are several different things we can do, some of which require a doctor and some of which do not," says Hunziker.
In cases of moderate to severe depression, you should see your doctor to discuss treatment options that may include medications and/or psychotherapy.
"With talk therapy, we do get changes to the neurotransmitters system in our brain that are responsible in part with helping us feel good, feel positive, feel happy," says Hunziker. "If we do talk therapy as a way to release all of our stress, it does actually make changes in our brain."
Milder cases of SAD can be treated with simple things like a change in diet.
"We tend to eat a lot of carbohydrates in the wintertime, as if we are preparing to go into hibernation," says Hunziker. "The carbohydrates craving is thought to be due to our need to produce serotonin. It also can slow us down and make us more sedate. A good healthy diet goes a long way in keeping us mentally healthy."
Getting off the couch and moving also can have a big impact, he says. "Exercise is a big thing. When it's snowing and it's cold and nobody wants go outside, you still need to go outside."
SAD sufferers also could find relief with light boxes that replicate the sun's rays. The lightbox removes all of the UV rays which can damage the skin and instead just provides healthy rays. Using the lightbox during the fall and winter months when the sun disappears can help many who suffer from SAD by triggering the same response in our bodies that the sun does.
It is important to use the box properly, though. Do not look directly at it, but set it where the light can shine on your face. Also, only use it in the morning, as using it in the evening can disturb sleep patterns. "Then you end up in more trouble than you were before," says Hunziker.
Above all else, whether suffering from a mild cases of the blues or a full-on depression, remember you don't need to continue suffering. Making changing in your exposure to sunlight, eating healthy, and making dietary changes can go a long way toward making every winter a more productive and happy time.