Thanks to global warming, the summers are longer and hotter, and winters are a stretch of snow and gloom.
As human beings, our relationship with the sun is a constant tug of war between love and hate. Red sunburns and t-shirt tan lines, uninvited 6-legged guests at garden picnics, and lovely iced mimosas and gorgeous sundresses – the sun draws it all out. Then spring and fall pave way for winter wonderland. Warm cups by the fire, white Christmases and the quiet snow – it’s the perfect fairy land.
Longer nights, shorter days, and much less sun. We all embrace the weather change with open arms, but many of us lose spirit halfway thank to the winter blues.
The winter blues are a phenomena a lot us go through. Our energy levels lower, we lose motivation to apply ourselves at work or in school, and it’s tougher to wake up every morning. People usually describe themselves as feeling low, down or even depressed. The winter blues can get a little intense and a very fine line can transition it into a clinically recognized conditioned called the seasonal affective disorder. When the constant feeling of being down, losing appetite and motivation stay for a prolonged period of time, it’s time to speak to a professional about your condition.
The Tale of Man and the Sun
Why has man woken up at sunrise and slept at sundown? There must be a reason why life as we know it thrives in broad daylight and not after nightfall.
And the answer is: Circadian Rhythms!
Circadian Rhythms are behavioral, physical and mental changes that take instruction from the body’s master clock. They respond to sunlight and induce wakefulness in us, and dial the wakefulness down as the sun lowers in the evening paving way for sleep. This is the body’s way to schedule activity, force and rest; lower levels of sun in the winter and shorter day light hours aren’t really good for this system’s functionality.
So, how important is the sun in our lives?
Most of us grew up hearing how the Sun boosts natural Vitamin D levels in our bodies, but have we stopped to wonder why it’s so important? Ultraviolet-B radiation from the sun creates Vitamin D in our bodies upon coming into contact with our skins. Research conducted on cancer revealed that increasing vitamin D exposure for patients with breast and colorectal cancers has helped the symptoms to shrink, and sufficient exposure to sunlight on an annual basis van help prevent such cancers.
Vitamin D also facilitates calcium movement in our bodies, preventing the onset of rickets, osteoporosis and osteomalacia which are ailments that deteriorate bones.
Vitamin D is also your brain’s best friend. The hypothalamus has Vitamin D receptors – this region of the brain required Vitamin D to help regulate the body’s physiological and behavioral state. Various researchers have found out that lower Vitamin D levels are correlated with depression.
Who doesn’t want a stronger and healthier body? Encased in lovely skin is our powerhouse of organs and intricate channels of communication which are inclined to work with absorbed sunlight.
Exposure to ultraviolet-A and ultraviolet-B rays can have immunosuppressant effects. They facilitate the upregulation of cytokines and increase the activity of T regulatory cells which remove harmful cells and encourage the suppression of autoimmune diseases.
Various skin diseases, with intensities of the likes of psoriasis, are dependent on the production of mast cells which a help various other bodily systems and peptides in the brain to work towards immunosuppressant activity (Photochemistry and Photobiology, 2017).
Exposure to sunlight facilitates the production of melanocytes in our skin, which cater to an endorphin system in our body. Of course, we are all familiar with how important endorphins are generate din our body due to high cardiovascular exercises and what not, but the sun gets endorphin production jumpstarted.
Endorphins are produced in the central nervous system and pituitary glands and are released in response to stress or pain to inhibit unpleasant sensations. This system acts as a natural stress suppressant which is important in mood maintenance, emotional regulation and the body’s response to physical stress.
Seasonal Affective Disorder
Intelligently acronymed as SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder is a recurring depression which comes with seasonal changes. The onset begins in fall and lasts through winter, and symptomology include low energy, lethargy, and a melancholic mood. Patients may also experience irritability, crying spells, social withdrawals and certain dietary cravings for a prolonged time. However, these symptoms have to be present for two cycles of winter before a doctor can be consulted.
A milder version of the disorder is known as S-SAD, subsyndromal seasonal affective disorder, which are the Winter Blues characterized by behavioral changes.
Slowed Serotonin Activity
Those afflicted with SAD have problems with serotonin balance – a neurotransmitter vital in regulating mood, memory, sleep, sexual activity and social behaviors – and lower levels of SERT, which is a protein that assists in serotonin transport, creating the onset of depression because serotonin is not fully passing through the brain’s communication channels (Madsen et al., 2014). Serotonin is one of the brain’s most vital neurotransmitters, and is also responsible for preventing the onsets of Parkinson’s disease and Schizophrenia, assuming it is well balanced in the brain.
Sleep, Wake up, Repeat
Some individuals who have SAD are facing an overproduction of melatonin, the famous sleep hormone, which is responsive to darkness and creates the feeling of sleepiness. The pupil is a biomarker for melatonin, taking in what it sees – an early evening, which causes the circadian rhythms to signal melatonin to do its bit because the sun is gone. Because winter days are shorter, and night falls sooner than it does on summer days, people feel more lethargic and sleepy (Lewy et al., 2006; Miller, 2005). If you live in regions where winter evenings start early and last long, you’re bound to feel lethargic and sleepy before your 5 pm shift is over.
With reduced sunlight exposure creating various changes in our bodies, the circadian rhythm is the most affected, and has difficulty adjusting with the changes. Light has been observed to affect cerebral blood flow, and a lack of light slowing down the blood flow reflects in decreased cognitive ability (Like learning or memory), and some studies have correlated the lack of brain activity to exacerbate symptoms of Alzheimer’s in the elderly afflicted with it – especially those who are already affected with the Sundowning Syndrome.
Winter Is Coming
So how can you beat the winter blues or SAD? It’s definitely challenging, after all, weather change is not preventable and the sun’s rotation isn’t exactly controlled by a remote.
Stick to Your Routine
Don’t let the late rising sun upset your routine. The trick is to keep on waking up at the same time and going to bed as you would do per your normal schedule. It may be dark when you roll out of bed, and you’ll have to turn on an extra light in the kitchen to make your coffee, but maintaining the same routine will help your body adjust to the lack of light while maintaining the same waking and sleeping schedule.
Don’t let the cold scare you or your blanket tempt you into staying in bed. Keep your regular routine at the gym going, or get running outside with some warm gear. Exercise will get your blood pumping which will increase blood flow to all parts of your body.
You will benefit from a warmer body, and you will get your regular production of endorphins, oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine – neurotransmitters and hormones that are important in keeping your sleep, mood and energy levels balanced. Besides, the summer body is made in winter!
Add Some Light
A German friend of mine mentioned how much she loved indoor lighting. Because the weather was always dark, cold and wet in Germany, café owners and restaurants began to invest in indoor lighting – ranging from bright LEDs to soft lamps and even candles. This was done to encourage people to get out of homes on cold days and get together for coffee or a warm meal, and it’s a lovely way to lighten your mood – pretty lights and a good laugh with friends.
If you’re not much of an adventurer, you could check out your local hardware store for some cute fairy lights, or paper mache your own lampshade to add some color and light to your home in winter.
Visit Your Physician
Ask your physician to measure your Vitamin D levels and prescribe some supplements if you are feeling particularly lethargic halfway through winter.
Tryptophan – the precedent of serotonin – supplements have also help those who are feeling more than the winter blues and are still not symptomatically afflicted with SAD.
Call Your Therapist
If you, or your loved one, are facing distressing emotional, behavioral and mental changes for a prolonged period of time, speak to a professional.
Explaining your feelings and symptoms will help you understand how severe your symptoms are, which will then be suggestive of psychiatric help or simple coping skills to get through the chilly days.
Ask your therapist about Light Therapy. A light box tuned to patients’ individual needs. The patient is exposed to the flat screens for a period of time ranging from 30 – 60 minutes.
You could also choose a therapist who has trained in psychotherapy to help you develop skills and condition you to deal with the symptoms when the weather changes.
Cognitive Behavioural therapy could also help depending on how your diagnosis came about. CBT helps to change thought patterns and a few weeks of this individualized treatment plan can equip you with coping skills.
Your psychologist or therapist can also refer you to a psychiatrist who will most probably write you a prescription for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or make changes to your psychiatric medicines if you already are taking some.
Until Next Winter
Seasonal affective disorders and the Winter Blues are definitely not enjoyable for those who are sensitive to changes in weather and sunlight. However, be vigilant: watch how you feel when the new weather rolls in; be way of any changes in sleep, appetite or general affect and be proactive when dealing with these changes.
Don’t forget to keep yourself, and your spirit warm. Usually a good book and hot cocoa, or a pampering spa day can help the snow seem kinder.
Also, one last this: please be careful to not self-medicate even if supplements or medicines seems safe. A small trip to the doctor or a discussion over the phone with one is highly recommended. Never hesitate to speak to a therapist if you’re getting distressed when the weather changes. Here’s a great directory of licensed therapists to make your search easier!