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It’s common for residents in the Inland Northwest to feel a bit down in the winter after weeks or months without much sunshine. Read this article to learn the difference between what’s “normal” and what may be a Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.

Winter Blues? Feeling SAD?

By Kate Vanskike

As winter lingers, are you losing your pep? Are you feeling tired and gloomy? You are not alone! It’s common for residents in the northern latitudes to feel a bit down after weeks or months without much sunshine. Learn the difference between what’s “normal” and what may be a Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.

“Some people assume they have SAD, but technically, seasonal affective disorder is not a stand-alone illness; it is a component of another depressive disorder,” explains Saneer Basnett, M.D., psychiatrist at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center. “Most of the population slows down in the winter time—that’s normal,” he says. “It’s when a person has major changes that they need to seek help.”

To ensure you feel your best during these gray winter days:

  • Expose yourself to as much bright light as you can. (When it’s sunny, go outside!)
  • Exercise, particularly during daylight hours, and outside when possible.
  • Cut the carbs. Carbohydrates (pasta, breads, chips, etc.) create a sugar rush followed by a “crash,” which makes you feel worse.
  • Take a vitamin D supplement.
  • Try taking melatonin about four hours before bedtime.
  • Experiment with light therapy (see sidebar).

Doctor’s orders: A daily dose of light

There is a direct relationship between the amount of daylight we enjoy and the amount of serotonin available at brain synapses; low serotonin levels are associated with depression.

Melatonin is a natural hormone, released in higher amounts in low-light conditions to help our bodies regulate sleep onset and duration. In winter months, higher melatonin levels due to decreased environmental light can lead sleepiness and slowing down. Light therapy can be an excellent way to get the body back into a healthy rhythm. With special lights (available at many stores) you can experience light levels similar to the outdoors, and decrease or eliminate the winter blues.

Here are a few of the options:

  • A dawn simulator lamp mimics natural sunrise with gradual increase in light intensity. Set it to begin its “sunrise” at 5:30 a.m. and by the time your 6:30 alarm goes off, your body’s internal alarm clock is synchronized to naturally go off as well.
  • Full-spectrum bright lights for your bathroom or other parts of the home. (If you have the dawn simulator, but the rest of your home is still dark as you’re getting ready, the impact is lost.)
  • A daylight lamp can be used at any time and is especially beneficial for those who work in offices with no windows. Exposure in the morning is better, and you don’t have to look at it—just place it about two feet away.

Dr. Basnett has personally found these techniques effective. “These three things really cut my caffeine intake,” he says. And breaking that dependency on coffee or sodas is important. “It’s a stimulant, and it creates a cycle of being ‘up’ and ‘down,’ which is just hard on us, physically and mentally.”

When the blues aren’t just the blues

SAD symptoms—which aren’t resolved by following the guidelines above—may include oversleeping and overeating, depression (despair, anxiety), relationship problems and behavioral challenges.

Professional evaluation is crucial for anyone who:

  • has suicidal thoughts
  • feels “low” or “down” all the time for two weeks or more
  • exhibits self-reproach or self-loathing and extreme negativism
  • loses interest in the activities they normally enjoy
  • and shows apathy or lack of concern.

If you see these symptoms in yourself or a loved one, seek help, advises Dr. Basnett. “Most primary care providers are very savvy – they’ll know the symptoms of a more serious concern. But also know that our ER is always available if you have a sense of urgency.”

The Emergency Center at Providence Sacred Heart includes a specialty area for individuals experiencing emotional or mental health challenges, where they can be under the care of staff trained in behavioral health.