Knowledgeable groundhogs say we have a few more weeks of winter, and that’s bad news for people with the winter blues.
We all like to think of ourselves as a force of nature boldly traveling through time and the seasons. Nothing as minor as winter should slow us down, but it does. Winter has a surprisingly large effect on your body and, for some, your soul.
Winter is cold and extremely dry. Your skin desiccates and often cracks, especially on the fingers, making it difficult to use a computer. You bundle up against the cold until you feel like the Michelin Man. Then you start noticing another type of cracking: your joints. Not moving is a sure way to make joints stiff and painful.
We eat differently in the winter, as the cold weather triggers an unconscious desire to store fat against some prehistoric seasonal famine. We just don’t feel the same.
Even your exercise program is more challenging in the winter, and often surrendered. Did you know that exercise is as effective against depression as most prescription drugs? The sunlight is much weaker in the winter and low vitamin D levels are associated with depression.
Are you depressed or is it just winter?
Some emotional range is normal, but when the dominant mood is sad over some time, you have a problem – depression (unipolar affective disorder).
Besides the mood changes, you can have other symptoms, such as fatigue, sleep disturbance, change in appetite and weight, and poor focus.
Biochemically seasonal affective disorder (depression) is characterized by lower levels of the “feel good neurotransmitter” dopamine. An SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) will often raise serotonin levels. Prozac is the prototypical drug in this class, and is usually effective against winter seasonal depression.
But not everyone needs to take medication to banish their seasonal blues. A 10,000 Lux full spectrum lightbox can also be quite effective.
It’s essentially a mini sun with UV filtered to protect your skin. You shine it into your face every morning and evening for 10 to 20 minutes. This tricks your body back into summer mode. A face full of light actually changes the chemistry in your brain. A suitable lightbox can easily be found on the Internet for $200 to $300. If that sounds expensive, think about the cost of prescription drugs. Plus, no refills are required.
The winter blues is a struggle for many, but a little exercise and a face full of light can make life feel like spring.
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing clinical occupational medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B. works in our Scottsdale, Arizona clinic.
Photos courtesy of the artists of Unsplash.