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How to Fend Off Depression in Winter

winter depression, blues, SADWhile some people look forward to fall and winter, others dread the cooler temperatures and shorter days. They know that the winter season will bring worsening symptoms of depression.

Up to 3 percent of the population in the U.S. may suffer from winter depression, which experts term seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. Countless others have a less severe form, dubbed the "winter blues." Symptoms may include:

• Extreme fatigue
• Getting too much sleep
• Difficulty concentrating
• Weight gain

Several treatments have been shown to improve seasonal winter depression, including:

• Light therapy
• Talk therapy
• Melatonin

Light therapy might be as simple as getting up early and walking outside on a bright winter morning. A technique called "dawn simulation" -- in which a light is programmed to turn on early in the morning in your bedroom -- can also help.

Light boxes are widely sold over the Internet, and exposure to them can help. When buying one, choose one that is at least 1 foot by 1.5 feet. These larger boxes have more supporting research. Patients sit in front of the light boxes daily for a specified amount of time. Getting bright light in the morning is best for most people.

Most people with seasonal winter depression respond best not only to bright light exposure in the morning, but also to a low dose of the hormone melatonin in the afternoon to reset their body clocks to normal.

For some people with winter depression, getting more therapy during colder months can help, too. A boost in activity will also help, even walking around the block or getting out to a ball game.

One warning: Craving carbohydrates -- especially sweets -- is a common symptom of SAD. But the boost in energy you get form these simple carbs is temporary, and the extra sweets can mean you'll put on weight.
Dr. Mercola's Comments:
Up to 14 million people in the U.S. alone suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), while about 25 million Americans suffer from the "winter blues," a condition not as serious as SAD but still requiring attention.

People with SAD tend to oversleep and overeat during the fall and winter. They easily tire, and find it difficult to maintain a regular schedule. Some become depressed and irritable, and lose interest in social interactions. Other symptoms include:

• A craving for sugary and/or starchy foods, usually resulting in weight gain
• Loss of self-esteem
• Difficulty concentrating and processing information
• Tension and inability to tolerate stress
• Decreased interest in sex and physical contact
• Full remission from depression occurs in the spring and summer months

The Major Cause of Winter Depression

The fact that SAD and the winter blues occur when the days begin to darken and sunlight is scarce is not a coincidence. Sunlight is crucial to human health, and when you don't get enough exposure to it your mood and physical health will suffer. More specifically, your serotonin levels (the hormone associated with elevating your mood) rise when you're exposed to bright light. You may have experienced this "high" feeling after spending some time on a sunny beach, for example.

Similarly, the sleep hormone melatonin also rises and falls (inversely) with light and darkness. When it's dark, your melatonin levels increase, which is why you may feel naturally tired when it begins to get dark outside (even when, in the heart of winter, this may be at only 4:00 p.m.).

It is because sunlight affects your melatonin-serotonin system that it works so well to alleviate the symptoms of the winter blues and elevates mood. In fact, studies have even found that light therapy or phototherapy, which is the practice of using full-spectrum light therapeutically, works to relieve the symptoms of the winter blues and SAD better than antidepressant drugs.

Dawn simulation, a technique that replicates an earlier dawn through exposure to artificial light, is also proven to alleviate some SAD symptoms. You can easily implement this into your routine by using a dawn-simulating alarm clock, which have a special built-in light that gradually increases in intensity to simulate a natural sunrise.

Interestingly, vitamin D, which requires sun exposure to be produced in your body, is also linked to higher levels of serotonin, and it has been suggested that getting plenty of sunlight over the summer helps your body to maintain higher vitamin D levels in the winter, and therefore higher levels of serotonin as well.

Many Americans, however, do not get enough sunlight over the summer months, let alone during the winter, which is why full-spectrum light boxes used in the winter can be so helpful.

You can actually get many of the same benefits by replacing the regular light bulbs in your home and office with full-spectrum lighting. Natural sunlight is full spectrum, and when looking for the best full-spectrum bulbs for your home, look for the full spectrum of color (imagine the colors of the rainbow), as well as infrared and the three ultraviolet wavelengths. No other type of lighting source -- not "regular" or even "natural" light bulbs or fluorescent light bulbs -- contains these requirements.

I have personally used full-spectrum lighting for years now, and can honestly say that they have provided an enormous boost in my ability to tolerate the often gloomy days where I live (near Chicago).

In fact, I have my entire home lit with these full-spectrum light bulbs.

I don’t consider them a replacement for real sunlight (nothing can do that), but they are the next best thing when the sun is not out, or when it’s too cold to spend time outdoors.

What Else Can Boost Your Mood During the Winter?

There are certain natural mood boosters that are worth trying no matter what the season. These include:

1. Exercise: Regular physical activity works better than antidepressant drugs to improve your mood.

2. Get your omega-3: Animal-based omega-3 fats like krill oil are linked to better emotional health. In fact, one study showed that people with lower blood levels of omega-3s were more likely to have symptoms of depression and a more negative outlook while those with higher blood levels demonstrated the opposite emotional states.

3. Go to sleep early. You were designed to go to sleep when the sun sets and wake up when the sun rises. If you stray too far from this biological pattern you will disrupt delicate hormonal cycles in your body. In the winter, this may mean that you’ll want to go to sleep a couple of hours earlier than in the summer.

4. Avoid grains and sugars: These will increase your risk of insulin resistance, which is linked to depression (and diabetes). If you struggle with sugar cravings, using the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) is a simple way to overcome them.

If you know that winter depression tends to be an issue for you, keep in mind that you can use these tips year-round, long before your symptoms set in. By doing this there’s a good chance you’ll be able to keep a bright mood no matter what the season.

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