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Set the stage to beat winter blues

Winter blues have been shown to be caused by lack of sunlight exposure.

January 16, 2014
Welcome to winter.

Living in a northern state, Michiganians are well aware there are more hours of darkness than light and more cloudy days than sunny.

The thermometer keeps busy traveling between bitterly cold negative digits to above freezing double digits. The wind is blowing briskly through the ice-covered bare tree branches.

These set the stage for a case of winter blues and depression. The first is a form of depression, said Linda Hryhorczuk, a Beaumont Hospital psychiatrist, a child and adolescent therapist.

"It's a mild disorder," she said of winter blues. "Everybody gets down with day after day of gloom. People react differently. We are fragile and if circumstances are right, we can tip over."

To avoid the tipping point, she recommends paying attention to each aspect of life from food to exercise, literature, music and socialization and then recalibrate.

The winter blues can manifest as a loss of interest and energy, sleeping a great deal, withdrawing from the family, craving carbohydrates and finding it difficult to get up in the morning.

At work, depression can be seen as difficulty concentrating or completing a task.

"It can be cleared up when the weather changes," Hryhorczuk said.

Studies show residents of northern states, where cloud cover is more prevalent, are more prone to depression than those who live in southern states and closer to the equator.

The obvious solution is light therapy, an increase in Vitamin D.

"A light box uses the full spectrum (of light rays). A prescription is not needed. Sit 1- to 2-feet away from the box for 30 to 60 minutes a day," she said.

Hryhorczuk advised going outside to absorb natural light and Vitamin D and exercising to feel less stagnant.

Light therapy as a way to combat winter's depression was first reported in the early 1980s by psychiatrist Norman E. Rosenthal. He suspected depression, or seasonal affective disorder, was linked to the lack of sunlight. He conducted his more than 20 years of research for the National Institute of Mental Health He also found SAD was less severe for those who live closer to the equator and those who vacation in a sunny place.

Gender, those with a biological predisposition and stress are also factors contributing to symptoms of SAD, Hryhorczuk pointed out, citing information from Rosenthal's papers.

Scientists have also discovered negative air-ion therapy in which an electronic device releases charged particles, has shown a 47.9 percent improvement in the reduction of SAD symptoms in those using the electronic device.

Hryhorczuk suggests those sensing they are slipping into a depressive state to analyze their life. Adjustments could be as simple as changing the type of literature read, the music style on the iPod or eating a more balanced diet.

"Be aware. Be more vigilant," she said.

However, if the depression is more severe, she recommends a visit to a doctor or psychiatrist when one's ability to work slows, family relations deteriorate and there is serious tension at home.

"Seeing a physician can also rule out a physical illness that can make (itself) known when depression sets in. There may be something physically wrong," she said.

If medication is prescribed, it is done so with deliberation.

"We need to be careful. We (doctors) don't do this lightly. Antidepressants can have side effects. Suicidal thoughts can increase," she said.

Additional solutions

"You have to force yourself to get out," she advised.

And that includes attending church.

"I view that as an asset," Hryhorczuk said.

Relationships formed, the service and involvement in church activities provide an added dimension to a lethargic winter lifestyle.

"In a 2013 study, researchers at UCLA and the University of North Carolina reported that happiness levels have powerful effects on genes and our health," said Rev. Ben Van Arragon of First Christian Reformed in Grosse Pointe Park. "But there was a catch: the specific kind of happiness mattered a lot. The unselfishly happy, whose feelings of well-being involved a deep sense of purpose of life, had a strong expression of antiviral and antibody genes."

His suggestion here is to give and expect nothing in return.

Hryhorczuk also offers these possible remedies:

Seek a balance in life.

Don't over indulge in caffeine or energy drinks.

Limit carbohydrates and sweets that can add pounds and contribute to depression.

Don't immediately seek medication to take care of the problem, but do seek the help of a doctor and psychiatrist if symptoms are a concern.

Socialization is an important component of chasing away the winter blues.

Bundle up, leave the house and enjoy a meal with friends, who are probably just as bored as you. Fill the meal with foods high in protein, vegetables and unprocessed foods.

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