Be bright, not SAD, and avoid ‘winter blahs’ - The Buffalo News

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Be bright, not SAD, and avoid ‘winter blahs’

Forget white. Sometimes, it seems, the official color of winter should be blue.

For many in the northern latitudes, the season pushes our hibernation bells. We tend to sleep more, eat more and exercise less.

“The majority of people are sensitive to the seasons, and this sensitivity is clearly related to the amount of daylight,” said Dr. Steve Dubovsky, chairman of psychiatry in the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and an expert on mood disorders. “The further you get from the equator, the more fluctuations in mood, energy and sleep you get with the change in seasons.”

The fall equinox sets about 1 in 25 people on a course to seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, a recognized mental health condition characterized by depression, overeating, and a sluggishness that lingers despite extra sleep.

Many others get a far less serious case of the “winter blahs.”

The same conditions that make Western New York a summer paradise work against us when the temperature drops.

The Great Lakes stabilize our air during the warmer months and hold our clouds at bay. But come October, as the air temperature routinely falls below our lake temperatures, our climate churns out more clouds and the percentage of available sunshine plummets, said Dan Kelly, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

“In the wintertime, we’re affected a lot by lake-effect snow and lake-effect clouds,” Kelly said.

Those who suspect they might have seasonal affective disorder are encouraged to seek help from a doctor. The good news for them, and those with the winter blahs, is that symptoms go away with the spring equinox. The more immediate good news: There are several things you can do this time of year to feel better while you’re waiting for brighter days to return to the region. Medication might be needed in the most serious cases, but here are other steps to take:

1. Be early. “Don’t sleep late,” Dubovsky advised. “Keep the same time going to sleep and waking up, winter and summer, and whether or not it’s a weekday. Don’t sleep in on the weekend and then get up early on days you go to work. Try to keep your hours regular. This will keep your biological rhythms synchronized.”

2. Get moving. Not to Florida or Arizona, mind you. “If you’re someone who likes exercise, exercise in the morning if you can,” Dubovsky said. “If you exercise at night, it may keep you up and make it harder to go to sleep. But if you tend to exercise at night, exercise at night. The more physical activity you can get, the better. And for people where physical activity isn’t their cup of tea – they like mental activity – do something involving mental activity each day, preferably in the morning.”

3. Watch what you eat. Sweets and other carbohydrates are particularly dangerous during the colder months, Dubovsky said. “You’re going to eat more, and the more you’re going to eat, the more you’re going to slow down,” he said, starting a downward cycle.

4. Light up. “If you find yourself really getting slowed down, or you just get can’t get out of bed in the morning – people are saying, ‘What’s the matter with you?’ – get yourself an artificial bright light,” Dubovsky said. He recommends a light powered by at least 10,000 lux, about 25 times the intensity of typical indoor lighting. Some lighting systems also simulate dawn during a summer morning. These sorts of lights can be ordered online for $100 to $250. A quick search yielded a NatureBright SunTouch Therapy Lamp at Sears in the McKinley Mall in Hamburg for $142.

Experts at Dent Neurological Group in Amherst and Buffalo Cardiology & Pulmonary Associates in Williamsville said exposure to bright light often is recommended for a half-hour to two hours a day, generally in the morning. Most people see their mood start to lift in three to five days, a feeling that will linger as long as light therapy continues.

5. Avoid sleeping pills. “The best cue to your sleep-wake cycle is exposure to bright light in the morning. If you have trouble going to sleep at night, don’t take sleeping pills for it,” Dubovsky said, but instead try waking earlier. “Get up in the morning, turn on that light. It’ll wake your brain up, and you’ll have an easier time going to bed at night.” If that fails, Dubovsky recommends taking the smallest dose available of melatonin, 3 mg, about an hour before bedtime.

6. Take vitamin D. This vitamin promotes cell growth and strengthens bones, and is most readily available from sunlight. Only a few food sources – including egg yolks, salmon, tuna and mackerel – provide adequate amounts. Dr. Zorba Paster, a columnist for WNY Refresh, recommends 200 units of “cheap” vitamin D daily, particular for those in cloudier regions.

7. Find a warm place. Winter in Hawaii would be nice, but a shorter, cheaper trip to a sunnier place also can help, at least for a while. Another tack to take is to hang posters, prints and paintings, and watch movies, that remind you of your favorite warm or sunny places until you can bask in spring.


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