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Singing the Winter Blues

I wanted my first article to be about a topic close to my heart, and that affects many in our area, Seasonal Depression, more commonly known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD for short. Actually, this is technically Major Depression, but it manifests itself during the darker months of the year. This type of depression is characterized by a noticeable decrease in mood around a specific time in the Fall, often in late September, followed by an increase in mood in April/May. During this time, people tend to be more sedentary, seek more carbohydrates/sugary foods, isolate themselves more than normal, and marked with weight loss or weight gain (usually weight gain).

Known by many names, like the “Winter Blues,” seasonal depression is surprisingly common in Northern States like Wisconsin.

This time of the year signals many things. We are not able to do as much outside as we would during the warmer months, which can be depressing if your hobbies aren’t accessible. Also, many family-centric holidays fall during the darker months of the year, and for those without family, it can be a source of depression. In reality, there likely isn’t a specific cause as to why many people feel worse mentally when the season changes.

Rather than speculate the causes of seasonal depression, it’s better to discuss ways to feel better. There are several potential ways to feel better during this time of the year. First, realize that you’re not unique in how you feel, and that many people suffer from this. Also, know that you don’t have to suffer all that time, because there’s help. Help comes in many forms, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, diet & exercise, over-the-counter supplements, prescription medications, and alternative treatments.

Depression is commonly treated when we change the way we think. Simply, if we find other ways to think more positively, we will feel more positive and better. This is very simplified, and this is typically done with the help of a therapist, like myself. Reading a self-help book is another good idea if you’d prefer that route first, or to supplement therapy. It's my experience that self-help books only get you so far.

Diet and exercise is also central to feeling better. Eating sugary and starchy foods (breads, pastas, potatoes, candy and pastries) can be very tempting to many during the colder months of the year, but that often sets-off a spiral of despair that typically makes the person feel worse, and worse. For example, the person experiences weight gain, which effects their physical and mental health, which leads them to eat more, which makes them feel worse… you get the idea! Or, that type of food leaves you feel more drained of energy because your blood sugar is all over the place, making you seek it more because you’re tired, which also creates a wicked spiral. For people who are sensitive to the changes of the seasons, a healthy diet is very important to stick to. Check-in with your doctor for help with starting and maintaining a healthy diet.

Additionally, lack of exercise during the colder months also wreaks havoc on our health. Our bodies are designed to move and be active. When we don’t feel good, we lack motivation often to move around as much. But that, like diet, leads down a path that makes us more sedentary and depressed. Make a point to stick to an exercise routine consisting of strength training and cardio. Speak with your doctor or a personal trainer for help if you want to create a safe exercise program.

Prescription medication can be very helpful for Seasonal Depression. Over the counter supplements may also be helpful. There's many over the counter supplements to choose from, and a simple Google search will get you steered on the right direction. Additional, your doctor may have suggestions, and can further discuss if prescription medications or supplements may be for you.

One very common way to combat seasonal depression, which is also backed by some interesting science, is using a light box. A light box is a VERY intense bright white light (10,000 LUX) that you sit 10-14 inches in front of for 20-60 minutes per day. Research shows that light boxes can be as effective as prescription medication for some. You don’t look directly at it, but rather place it in your peripheral vision while eating breakfast or having your morning coffee while you read the paper. You can even watch tv while using it. As long as you don’t stare into it, the light has not shown to have many negative side effects. One potential side effect is the triggering of mania in people with bi-polar disorder.

The first step to receiving a light-box is to speak with your physician. It is considered durable medical equipment, which means that many types of insurance companies will pay for it. You may have a co-pay though. Another option is to just order one off the internet. Amazon has many options. Remember, the light should be white (not blue), and it has to be at least 10,000 LUX. Also, try to avoid micro-sized lights. While these may be convenient for travel, they aren’t ideal. You want the biggest surface area possible, as these have been shown to be the most effective in scientific studies.

I hope some of this info is found helpful!

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