Why does Winter give me the blues?

Fall Back picOur clocks were turned back this past weekend & that’s nothing new, since the Western world has been participating in Daylight Savings time since 1918. You can see many historical facts about DST here if you like.

Interestingly, however, there is a large number of people who begin to feel more down now that this shift has occurred.  Often, we often refer to this feeling as the “winter blues”.  Some people will feel down for the the duration of the shorter winter days, and then brighten again in the longer summer days, while others are much more negatively affected by the time change.

According the DSM-5, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is also known as winter depression, winter blues, summer depression, summer blues, or seasonal depression.  The DSM-5 (& 4) have redefined it as part of the recurrent major depressive disorder that has a seasonal pattern of recurrence (here).  It used to be considered a stand alone mood disorder that was experienced by people without any other psychiatric conditions, but this was redefined.

winter-blues

Some of the Symptoms of Major Depressive Disorder (could be part of SAD) include:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless
  • Having low energy
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Having problems with sleeping
  • Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide

Symptoms specific to Fall/Winter SAD include:

  • Irritability
  • Tiredness or low energy
  • Problems getting along with other people
  • Hypersensitivity to rejection
  • Heavy, “leaden” feeling in arms or legs
  • Oversleeping
  • Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
  • Weight gain

Symptoms specific to Spring/Summer SAD include:

  • Depression
  • Trouble sleeping (insomnia)
  • Weight loss
  • Poor appetite
  • Agitation or anxiety

Anyway, if you think these symptoms might apply to you, and in particular if you find your life disrupted by these symptoms or if you find yourself thinking a lot about suicide then you should talk to you doctor or health care practitioner.

Treatments:

  • Light therapy – exposure to bright light under specific conditions – daily treatments of 15-30 mins.
  • Psychotherapy.
  • Anti-depressant medication.
  • Complementary treatment includes peer support groups and other support programs.
  • Additional treatments that might have benefit: massage, mindfulness meditation, shiatsu, therapeutic touch, aromatherapy, tai chi, Pilates & yoga.

I think that the treatments can work and it’s definitely worth exploring with your doctor or health practitioner to see what ‘s the best option for you.  However, I find it interesting that none of the treatments address sleep quality or our evolved variation of sleep length from summer to winter!!  This perplexes me.  I honestly think that if people would just go to bed a couple hours earlier when the days are shorter, the incidence of these

Why is this happening?fredsleep
Although there are several theories underlying the causes of SAD, I believe many of them (as usual) in modern research are missing a huge chunk of the picture.  Essentially, modern research examines mechanism, which is GREAT, however, they do this often in animal models & then attempt to create a pharmaceutical or other intervention that addresses this mechanism specifically & then test it in humans once it’s allowed (many years often).  However, this goal (creating a marketable treatment), in my opinion, skews research questions to become 1-dimensional, and ignore human evolutionary biology, that NO OTHER animals have undergone.  I’m not saying that the pharmaceuticals are not good, or that you should avoid them.  Not at all, but I honestly believe that we as humans should pay attention to our own evolutionary history so that we can live in line (as much as possible) with our genes.

I believe that living out of line with our genes is why we are seeing many of these diseases of the modern world.  Modern living is affecting both our physical and mental health!  I have written about how to live for your “healthy” genes in a prior post (here).

We evolved to sleep more when days get shorter.

MNight Shiftost people will try to go to bed between 10 and 11 pm (or later).  And interestingly, this is done all year round, regardless of the setting of the sun.  Think about it.  In the middle of winter it can get dark when it’s 4 pm, and then we go home & leave our lights, TVs, computer screens, etc… on until between 10 and 11 pm (or later). Obviously, before the advent of the artificial light we would have been using oil lamps (oil was not cheap) or candles and when it got dark at 4 pm we would probably go to bed a few hours after that.  Also, in the summer when it gets dark around 9 pm, we would go to bed a few hours after that.  Meaning that we would go to sleep earlier in the winter months than in the summer ones.

This is very interesting, because today almost no one goes to bed earlier in the winter months than the summer, we just leave our lights & other electronics on longer in the winter.

There has been a lot of research examining the effects of artifical light exposure on health including cancer, obesity and diabetes.  It’s long been known that shift work disrupts circadian rhythms and is associated with obesity and diabetes.

In terms of mechanisms, it’s becoming common knowledge that exposure to blue light stops melatonin secretion, which can start a chain reaction of metabolic disruption that often leads to metabolic syndrome (here).

So what’s the bottom line to my health?

You definitely need to be aware of your mood & situation.  Be sure to discuss things with your doctor or health practitioner if you think that you might be experiencing SAD.  However, I would also add that you should try going to bed a bit earlier during the shorter days of the winter months.  Seriously.  Try using non-blue light in the evenings, even candles or non-blue containing light bulbs & you will likely notice that going to bed a couple of hours earlier in the winter than the summer is easier than you think.

I hope you find this information useful.

Please feel free to ask any questions in the comments area and even share your experiences with artificial light, sleep and health in the comments section if you like.

Have an amazing day!

Till next time.  In health & fitness,

Dan T

Citations:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daylight_saving_time

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seasonal_affective_disorder#Signs_and_symptoms

http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/basics/symptoms/con-20021047

http://www.mooddisorders.ca/faq/seasonal-affective-disorder-sad#t10n538

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2 Responses to "Why does Winter give me the blues?"

  1. Canadian Minds on Health | Zzzzzzzzombie apocalypse – why & how to sleep better – CMOH Episode 7 says:

    […] did a post on Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) (here). Read that one for a bit more info on […]

  2. EP7 Zzzzzzzzombie apocalypse says:

    […] did a post on Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) (here). Read that one for a bit more info on […]

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