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Natural Awakenings Chicago

Winter Blues Are Not Inevitable

Oct 31, 2019 09:00AM
by Megy Karydes

It’s easy to fall into doldrums when it’s cold and dark outside. For some people, those feelings manifest into seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that often happens during the fall or winter. It is thought that shorter days and less daylight may trigger a chemical change in the brain, according to Chicago-based Northwestern Medicine. Researchers believe SAD is tied to the hormone melatonin, which affects the body’s sleep-wake cycle. When there is less daylight, melatonin production increases and stops when our eyes are exposed to sunlight. As a result, many people rely on increasing their exposure to light to combat SAD.

“When people are exposed to sunlight or very bright artificial light in the morning, their nocturnal melatonin production occurs sooner, and they enter into sleep more easily at night,” writes Mark Nathaniel Mead, MSc, a nutrition educator and consultant, in “Benefits of Sunlight: A Bright Spot for Human Health,” written for Environmental Health Perspectives, a peer-reviewed journal published monthly with support from the U.S. National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences. “The melatonin rhythm phase advancement caused by exposure to bright morning light has been effective against insomnia, premenstrual syndrome and seasonal affective disorder,” notes Mead.

As is often the case when people suffer from some type of depression, they may feel it’s just temporary or there isn’t anything they can do about it. “People often think they are powerless, short of moving to Hawaii or a sunny climate, and have to accept the ‘winter blues’,” says Konrad Jarausch, Ph.D., founder of Sunlight Inside. “But this is not true.” Jarausch is committed to bringing the benefits of natural light indoors and decided to use his background as a scientist and engineer to launch his line of lamps that automatically change colors and intensity based on the time of day.

For those that feel big changes need to be made to manage SAD, Jarausch notes that sometimes all it takes are small or modest changes in behavior to make an impact. He suggests spending time with a light therapy lamp or going outside in the morning, even in the winter months. “Fifteen to 30 minutes of exposure to daylight provides the ‘awake and alert’ signal our bodies need to properly regulate our hormones and circadian rhythms,” he says. “Lamps specially designed to provide bright, blue-rich light can help provide the stimulus our bodies require in the mornings. These lamps are particularly useful in climates and seasons when it is difficult to get exposure to natural light in the morning (or if you have a job that prevents you from getting outside in the morning).”

It’s important to note that while most people think SAD is found in adults, studies suggest that more than 1 million children and adolescents also suffer, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. While parents should encourage children with mild symptoms to spend time outdoors during the day, AAP recommends light therapy for children and adolescents that suffer from more severe symptoms. “The most common kind of phototherapy involves having a child sit under a bank of special fluorescent lights on a regular basis,” AAP notes.

To maximize the benefits of using a light therapy lamp, experts including Jarausch suggest spending 30 to 90 minutes in close proximity to the lamp in the morning and on a regular basis, ideally on most days. Basically, these lamps are acting as a supplement or substitute for the “daytime” signal that natural light would provide if we were outdoors, according to Jarausch, who says, “Our bodies require a bright light signal daily in the mornings to trigger our hormone cycles (circadian rhythms) which help regulate our mood, energy, metabolism and general health.”

Buyers must also be aware that there are no regulations for manufacturers marketing their lamps as beneficial to those suffering from SAD. Jarausch recommends buyers pay particular attention to details when shopping for a light therapy lamp. For example, some people think fluorescent light bulbs can do the trick and while some might, many often provide only a small portion of the natural-light spectrum and suffer from flicker, which can cause headaches and eyestrain.

Two other things to consider when purchasing a lamp are the intensity of the light “dose” received depending upon proximity to the lamp and its position with respect to the eye, in addition to the interval and time of day. “Generally speaking, the closer you sit to the light the more light you receive, so most light therapy products need to be two to three feet from the user to be effective,” he adds.

It should be noted that most light therapy lights should only be used in the morning, because their bright blue-rich light would be very disruptive at night. The lamps needn’t be directly in the line of sight to receive the benefits, although they won’t do any good if they’re across the room. Jarausch’s light therapy lamp is off to the side of his computer monitor so he doesn’t have to squint while working, but can still get his morning fix.

For some SAD sufferers, spending as much time outdoors is a more natural approach. “Forest bathing offers a relaxing, easily accessible way for people to connect with nature for wellness by combining the benefits of nature exposure and mindfulness,” says Jodi Trendler, executive director and certified forest therapy guide at TheResiliency Institute. The Naperville-based organization offers several programs, such as forest therapy, nature yoga, women’s circles and herbalism to help people create resilient lifestyles.

The practice of forest bathing (Shinrin-yoku) means “taking in the forest atmosphere”. It’s sometimes referred to as forest therapy because of the way it makes people feel. “Forest bathing, by the simple practice of being outside, will increase levels of vitamin D, which can help abate some of the symptoms of SAD,” adds Trendler. In the colder and darker months, people are more reluctant to go outside. She reminds them that there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear. “Not many adults own a pair of snow pants or proper boots for longer outdoor exposure, and luckily, they have come a long way developing various types of hand and foot warming gear,” she advises.

In addition to forest bathing and nature yoga which encourage people to get outside, The Resiliency Institute offers programs to help people develop personal resilience. Their Wild Woman circles are designed to help reduce personal stress, as well as provide social connection, also critical for alleviating SAD.

Brenda Spitzer, a certified forest therapy guide and mentor who offers forest bathing experiences at The Morton Arboretum, offers forest therapy walks and has noticed that regardless of the season, participants want the time and space to be fully present in the moment in nature. “They seem to appreciate the opportunity to just walk slowly along the trails to intentionally notice the many details of the natural environment,” notes Spitzer. “Many participants have mentioned that although they may have arrived at the walk feeling a bit stressed, they completed the walk feeling more relaxed and positive about life.”

She’s also noticed that people appreciate having time to disconnect from electronic devices and connect with their natural surroundings. During the winter months, being outdoors looks and feels a lot different than when the trails are lush with thick tree canopies. “On a forest therapy walk in the colder months, there is so much beauty to notice out of doors that only occurs during the winter season,” shares Spitzer.

“The outdoor sounds of a winter environment seem to be gentle, and are contrasted by the silence between the sounds,” she says.

As Trendler observes, many participants may fear leaving the warmth of the indoors, but according to Spitzer, forest therapy walk participants say they appreciate the value of going outside to connect with nature in all weather, especially during winter. “Just getting outside, breathing fresh air and enjoying the sights and sounds of winter can have such a positive effect on our health and mental outlook,” she says.

Megy Karydes plans to spend less time on her computer and more time hearing the comforting crunching of leaves during her winter forest therapy walks. Find her at MegyKarydes.com.


SAD Versus Depression

Seasonal affective disorder is not considered as a separate diagnosis, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Rather, it is a type of depression displaying a recurring seasonal pattern.


Symptoms of major depression include:

Feeling depressed most of the day nearly every day

Feeling hopeless or worthless

Having low energy

Losing interest in activities once enjoyed

Having problems with sleep

Experiencing changes in appetite or weight

Feeling sluggish or agitated

Having difficulty concentrating

Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide.

 

Symptoms of the winter pattern of SAD include:

Low energy

Hypersomnia (excessive sleepiness)

Overeating

Weight gain

Craving for carbohydrates

Social withdrawal (hibernation)


Source: National Institute of Mental Health (nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/seasonal-affective-disorder/index.shtml).