Winter Blues? Tips for Combating SAD

Much of the country was hit by record setting low temps and severe winter storms this year. From Montana to New York, the icy grip of severe weather has kept many of us stuck indoors and in a funk.  Several of my patients have complained recently of depression, low energy, lack of concentration, sleeplessness, weight gain and irritability.  When I mention it might be attributable to dark winter days and long winter nights, many are incredulous. But SAD is a real disorder and should not be ignored.

Winter weather may take a toll on your physical health, bringing with it flu, head colds, bronchitis and other respiratory conditions. But it can also wreck havoc with your mood.  These seasonal episodes of depression are known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also known as “winter blues” and they are fairly common.

SAD may creep up on you. Circadian rhythms—our daily, patterned biological processes, including our sleep cycle, may shift during the winter when the light-dark cycle changes. We may find ourselves sleepy in the middle of the day as light fades, and wakeful in early morning when the sun comes up.  These changes may destabilize our moods and affect our behavior.

The good news is that SAD is treatable. Like other types of depression, it responds to therapy and antidepressant medication.  Some specialists recommend light therapy to manipulate the light-dark cycle.

But, lifestyle changes may be equally effective.  Here are tips I’ve given my patients to help them get through the winter blues:

Tip #1 – Get outdoors.  Cold and wind may encourage hibernation, but don’t let it. Even a short amount of fresh air and natural light will combat SAD. 15-20 minutes daily is all you need.  On icy days, try looking up from your computer once in a while and gaze out the window! Even light through a window is better than the darkness.

Tip #2- Exercise.   Moving your body is one of the best ways to treat depression, so don’t let winter weather slow you down.  You can always go to the gym, put on a You Tube video in your apartment or dance to your favorite music.

Tip #3- Socialize.  Fight the urge to isolate and call a friend.  Better yet, invite someone for dinner, to watch a movie, play board games or just talk. I encourage my patients to bring back the old fashioned idea of “having company”.  It’s fun and it’s free.

Tip #4—Eat Right. They don’t call it “comfort food” for nothing.  Weight gain is a symptom of SAD, so don’t reach for junk food in place of healthy meals.  Each week stock up on healthy food and snacks for the week.  Planning ahead is the key.  If you are inclined to cook, try a healthy soup or stew. Nurture yourself.

If you are feeling sad, it might be SAD.  Check with your doctor if symptoms are severe, but know you are not alone.  Making an effort to stay healthy and engaged in this winter, will get us through until Spring.