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S.A.D. And The Winter Blues

Aug 27, 2007
Every year as many as ten million Americans, approximately 6 percent of the population, fall prey to this insidious disease. It quietly robs you of your energy, your zest for life and overall health. The "Winter Blues" which has also been called "The Hibernation Response" is actually a milder form of S.A.D. (Seasonal Affective Disorder) and usually temporary but no less painful. Because of unstable or high levels of melatonin and lowered levels of serotonin, we suffer mood changes, decreased energy and among other things, an inability to concentrate. Although it can affect anyone, SAD is more prevalent in the northern climates or in areas that experience a large number of cloudy days. Women are found to experience it 3 times more than men and it may be inherited.

It's responsible for a variety of symptoms including overeating and oversleeping. I don't know about you but I don't need any more reasons to overeat and sleep too much! These symptoms are in sharp contrast to classic depression symptoms where sufferers experience an inability to sleep and loss of appetite. Feelings of hopelessness, low self-esteem, poor memory, a general lack of interest or even suicide are not uncommon with this disease.

Because of the shortened days of winter, we receive less natural light. This can raise the levels of melatonin in our bloodstream, making us feel sluggish or tired. Most of us are naturally less active in the winter and it's likely no coincidence that SAD affects us at this time of year.

Though we can do nothing about the seasons, we can take measures to help lessen the effects of SAD. Be proactive and attack the disease by using some simple but effective steps to help ward off an attack.


One of the best ways to stem the onslaught of this disease is to get exercise, first thing in the morning if you can. Studies have been done which show that serotonin levels in the body rise with increased activity and this increased production can last for several days. If you can, take walks at least 3 times a week. Take the kids sledding or skating, maybe even take up a new hobby, skiing for instance. The activity and exposure to what sunlight that is available will not only help with symptoms but with your overall health. If you can't go outside to exercise, try finding a comfortable spot near a window or slider and exercise indoors. Nobody wants to stare at a wall while they're sweatin' to the oldies! The important thing is to remain active.


Diet is another important factor. You've heard it before: what you put into your body has a huge affect on the way you feel, physically and emotionally. Eat foods high in protein and low in fat. Cut down on the sugary junk food. Sure it makes you feel better while you're eating it but are the long-term effects worth it? You don't need to stop altogether but you'll find that by eating less, you'll crave it less. Slowly replace that ice cream with yogurt a couple times a week. Instead of munching down that bag of chips, try eating unsalted nuts while watching the game of the week. You'll not only feel better, you'll feel better about yourself because you're taking an active role in your long-term health. You can also eat foods high in carbohydrates. These foods help by triggering insulin to be released into the bloodstream. This clears the system of all the amino acids except tryptophan which then goes to the brain where it's converted to serotonin. Whole-grain breads, rice, cereal, fruit and crackers are all high in carbohydrates.

Light Therapy

Studies also show the use of light boxes to be effective. The production of melatonin in the pineal gland, located near the center of the brain, is actually stimulated by darkness - this aids in sleep at night. The introduction of bright light, even artificial light is beneficial because this production is suppressed by light. It works by having an intense bright light enter the eye where it hits the retina and is transmitted to the pineal gland. This increased light not only slows the production of melatonin, it increases the production of serotonin. Serotonin, like melatonin, is synthesized from the amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan is found in foods that are high in protein which makes a high protein diet so important.

An increased serotonin level is beneficial in so many ways. It decreases sensitivity to pain by increasing the pain threshold. It helps you fall asleep at night and gives you a general sense of well being. Increased alertness and concentration as well as a (natural) decrease in appetite are other benefits.

There have also been studies to suggest that if we use light to wake us in the morning instead of an alarm clock, our body will reward us with better health and sense of well being. These devices, known as dawn simulators, gradually fill your bedroom with light, simulating the rising sun. You'll wake up naturally refreshed and your eyes will already be adapted to room light. I know personally, I would rather wake up slowly, quietly and naturally than to be startled from my slumber.


In the event that the self-help methods have not relieved the winter blues it's developed into full-blown S.A.D., there are other avenues for the afflicted.

SSRI (Selective Serotonin Re-Uptake Inhibitors)

There are a handful of medications that operate under the widely held belief that low serotonin levels are at least part of the cause of S.A.D. These medications are part of a family of drugs known as Selective Serotonin Re-Uptake Inhibitors (SSRI). They slow the process of "using" the available serotonin in the body. This in effect, "rations" the serotonin and gives the body time to build up more.

SSRIs help the body use what small amounts of serotonin it does produce. With continued treatment, your natural serotonin levels begin to rise, and use of the medicine can be reduced or stopped altogether.

Seasonal Affective Disorder need not claim you as its victim. When winter rolls around and you begin to feel the effects of this disease, there are things you can do to help yourself. Your health and well being are your responsibility. With a diligence and an honest effort on your part, you can lessen its effects and increase the likelihood of having a great winter!
About the Author
Ron Berry is a freelance journalist who writes for Essay Street - http://essaystreet.com, the home of the No-Label RSS Feed. He occasionally suffers from mild cases of Winter Blues but emerges every spring with renewed optimism.
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