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Healthy Aging

5 Secrets to Fighting the Winter Blues

By Sheryl Kraft

Created: 11/08/2011
Last Updated: 08/10/2012

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With problems like global famine, the deepening Euro crisis, the situations in Iran and Afghanistan, financial disasters, Penn State's sex abuse scandal and the conviction of Michael Jackson's doctor, who am I to feel SAD?

What a challenge last week was! A freak snowstorm in the Northeast rendered us without power in Connecticut for a full eight days (some people are still waiting to be taken out of the dark). Halloween was rescheduled for the following Saturday, because it was too dangerous for anyone to be walking around outside in total darkness with downed power lines all around. Schools were closed for the entire week in many districts. Our generator ran out of propane, and due to the high demand, stayed that way for days.

As if that weren't enough, when our power was finally restored this past Saturday, and we could finally see the light at the end of the long, dark tunnel, it was time to turn the clocks back and get an hour less of daylight.

I don't know about you, but that all adds up to one thing for me: feeling SAD (seasonal affective disorder). I know, I know. There are major things going on all around—life-threatening things that permanently alter the course of our lives. So, snap out of it, right!?

Unfortunately, it's tough. The reduced level of sunlight can disrupt the body's internal clock and lead to feelings of depression, cause serotonin levels to drop (serotonin is a brain chemical, or neurotransmitter, that affects mood) and disrupt the balance of the natural hormone melatonin (which factors into sleep patterns and moods).

With shorter days and winter looming, many people—not just me—are sorely tempted to burrow under the covers and not emerge until spring and the blessed moment we turn the clocks in the other direction.

You'd think that gaining an hour of daylight in the morning—waking to daylight, rather than darkness—would be enough to ease some of those feelings. But in sensitive people, daylight savings time can have a bigger effect—that of sleep loss—by messing with our "internal clock," which is governed by our circadian rhythms.

(Fun trivia fact: the changing of the clocks helped one man get around the draft during the Vietnam War. He argued that standard time, not daylight savings time, was the official time for recording births in his state the year of his birth. Under official standard time, he was actually born the previous day. Because that day had a much higher draft lottery number, he was able to avoid the draft.)

Wars aside, living with SAD can be quite debilitating. In my quest to help myself and countless others facing down that hijacker trying to whisk you away, here are some suggestions from experts to hold your ground.

1.    Use light therapy. Exposure to bright light helps to energize you and keep your circadian rhythm balanced. It also stimulates the same neurotransmitters as antidepressant medicines. Research has found it beneficial for treating depression, even during non-winter months. Although a mere lamp will not suffice, a special light therapy box that mimics natural outdoor light can be used for this purpose. (If you have one, I'd love to know what kind. I think I've got to get me one!)

A word of caution: tanning beds don't help. Besides being dangerous for your skin, you need visible light, not the UV light they emit.

2.    Get social. All that real or imagined hibernation is probably cutting into your social life, and social support is way up there for helping you feel happy and is key in lessening depression. Pushing yourself may be the way here: even if you don't feel like going out once the sun sets, make commitments that force the issue, and stick to them. Chances are you'll come home feeling so much better than when you left.

3.    Exercise. The cure for everything, from insomnia to achy joints. But really, the biggest boost will be to your mood. A 2007 study (and countless others) in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine showed that depressed people who exercised regularly recovered almost as well as people who took medication. In addition to the mood boost, it forces you out of the house (that is, if you don't exercise at home alone) and helps you get social (see above). If it's hard to get going, here are some proven .

4.    Be hands-on. Ah, massage. It is not just a luxury but can also be an effective tool for treating depression. What happens during that blissful session is that your levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) fall while your levels of serotonin rise. Both physiologically and biochemically, your body is changing in a very, very good way. Hugs, cuddling with your pet or just holding hands with your honey, while not exactly taking the place of a massage, can be great mood-boosters too.

5.    Drink coffee. An association has been found between in a recent Nurses' Health Study. Women who drank more than four cups a day had a 20 percent lower risk of depression than women who drank less.
If you like coffee, it's worth a try, especially if having a cup means getting in the car, getting out into the sunlight and socializing with other coffee drinkers!


Oh, how I dread the "dark" time of year. C'mon Dec 21, when the days start getting longer again.

That's a good reminder, Roxanne, and something to look forward to, not only because it's the holidays!

Exercise is so important, and I never feel like doing it! I force myself to and it really helps.

Glad you are able to force yourself even though you don't feel like exercising. That's one battle solved!

I'm fortunate in that I enjoy autumn and winter. My mother, though, fell the effects of SAD very much, and she was so glad when we found out a name for it and things to do a about it. Being more social and drinking coffee were things that worked especially well for her, I think, also growing some plants indoors in her classrooms -- she was a teacher, and she loved to garden, something she missed doing outside in winter but loved sharing with her students.

Growing plants indoors is a wonderful way to stay in touch with the outdoors when it's too cold. Your mother was a wise woman and I'm sure sharing it with her students helped enrich their lives, as well.

On top of it, we've had dark, rainy days for the past 3 days. Yesterday, it was so stormy, it actually got dark here at 4 p.m. Ugh. Hoping for some sunlight today. You've given some good advice, I do most of these things already and it all does help.

Yes, I notice the sun is definitely retreating around 4. Way too early, I agree!

I find having a dawn simulator wake me up is really helpful for SAD. I got it on Amazon.com and it wakes me up by shining progressively more light on me over about half an hour while I'm sleeping.

Thanks for that tip, Nancy. Going to check it out right now!~

Well now I know that the extra cup of espresso I'm having this morning is GOOD FOR MY MOOD. To think I thought I was just being a slacker.

Well, even if you were being a slacker (which I'm sure you weren't), that's a good treatment for your mood, no? :)

It's definitely getting darker here in Michigan, so I appreciate all of these tips. And I'm so glad you got your power back! Wow, that was a long stretch of no power.

Thanks, Jane. Yes, a very long stretch to be without power. The fun wears off around hour 2.

Funny! I posted about how much I dislike November this morning! Thanks for permission to schedule a massage. And, we just took your advice and went for a walk about the marina. Glad you got your power back!

Glad you were able to put my advice to work, Alexandra. There's nothing like getting outside and looking at water to put me in a good mood; glad it worked for you, too.

Bowl, see Castle do not regret. Former first rainy admiration in your face, the rain a little bit sketched out your perfect silhouette, appropriately showcase your beautiful moment. Today, especially on rainy days to arouse my compassion, and even feel the rain the sky can not compare this Renku world tears shed. Because the world is so bitter, the rain was the next stop. I believe in the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of the Pure Land in a file is not raining, where the air is full of light and happiness, always have flowers with petals fluttering down.

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In Winter time I get crafty and I listen energetic music that keep me moving and in good spirit.

That sounds like a wonderful solution, Rosalba. And besides, you get the benefit of creating something special.

When I lived in Virginia, I struggled with SAD. Moving to a sunny climate like Arizona helped. But now I'm spending most of my time in Montana where the winters a cloudy and snowy. I'll be using your tips. Great advice, especially the exercise and coffee!

That's quite a change from Arizona to Montana. Hopefully you'll be able to return to Arizona when you need a dose of warm sunshine.

Fortunately, after a very wet early fall it's been all sunshine (or pretty much) the last few weeks where I live. I'm trying to spend as much time outside as I can so that when the gray days come--and they will--it won't feel so bad.

So nice to have all that sunshine after all that time, I'm sure. Store up all you can for the winter ahead!

I usually get gloomy when the days get short and dark. But this year, coming off a hellacious summer of heat and drought and wildfires, I just feel relieved by the seasonal changes.

Good article Sheryl! I know it will help lots of people adjust more easily to the coming darker days.

What helped me was moving from Michigan to sunny California 30 years ago. Haven't looked back. Its rarely dark and gloomy in sunny LA.


Another health reason to have a massage? Good to know.


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