Beating the Winter Blues

December 2, 2011
Print Friendly

By Mark William Lisky

Research is showing that longer winter sleeps may not only improve mood, but has a direct correlation between weight loss and longevity. A study conducted at the University of Chicago on healthy non-obese subjects suggested that short sleep cycles may promote insulin resistance, weight gain and the development of type 2 diabetes.

As the depths of winter approach, many people may begin experiencing the blues or mild depression. Some levels of depression this time of year are considered normal and, perhaps, biologically necessary. Brief bouts of the winter blues usually center on holiday letdowns, family issues and winter weight gain. The shorter days and lack of sunshine can also cause the blues.

When a person’s winter blues become more serious and are accompanied by feelings of overwhelming sadness and hopelessness, they may be caused by a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD was first noted at the National Institute of Mental Health in 1984 by Dr. Norman Rosenthal MD. Initially skeptical, mental health experts now recognize this condition as a very real mood disorder.

Statistically, women suffer from SAD more than men. It has been noted, that people with SAD have at least one close family relative with a psychiatric condition, mostly a depressive disorder or alcohol abuse. Another form of SAD called Sub-syndromal Seasonal Affective Disorder (SSAD) is a lesser form, but is experienced by more people.
Dr. Don Erwin, clinical director of Monmouth Psychological Associates states, “As a past clinical director of an out-patient clinic, I observed how winter and the short days influenced people’s moods and energy levels. At least sixty percent of the patients I saw suffered from some form of seasonal depression.”
Erwin continues, “One of the problems around this time of year is the way the blues can affect someone with an already diagnosed psychological or medical disorder.”

Fatigue, weight gain and food cravings

Whether it’s the winter blues, SAD or SSAD, the most common symptoms in varying degrees are morning sickness, daytime fatigue, weight gain, decreased sexual interest, lack of pleasure, difficulty completing tasks, general lethargy and social withdrawal. Also, intense cravings for carbohydrates are noted in people with seasonal depression.
Without a doubt, sugary foods provide some comfort from the blues. Sugar stimulates the pleasure center of the brain. However, eating more “comfort food” to help alleviate depression doesn’t eliminate it; it only makes the blues more tolerable for a bit. It’s like taking aspirin for a fractured leg. Winter overeating, especially sugar-dense nutrient-poor food, can cause insulin resistance (insulin resistance is a direct cause of obesity). These types of foods, as everyone knows, are available in mass during the winter holidays. In nature, insulin resistance in order to increase obesity is actually a self-induced condition in hibernating animals.
Bears fill up on animal fat and berries before hibernating. It’s in these animals’ best interest to fatten up before taking a long winter sleep. They will be living on their stored body fat for months. Our ancestors did the same. It’s in our genes to fatten up in times of plenty. And, according to experts, the food we fattened up on was fructose (fruit sugar). However, unlike a distant cousin, we no longer have to wait out the five lean months of an ancient winter. While it might be healthy for them, it’s bad for us.

Rock Review: The Invasion, Redux

SAD linked to lack of sunlight

As mentioned, seasonal mood disorders have a direct link to light, specifically the amount of sunlight. It’s been known for years that sunlight controls many chemical, neural and hormonal messengers. These messengers play important roles in mental functioning, mood, weight maintenance and sexuality.
When days shorten, researchers believe we’re programmed by nature to sleep longer. This helps us take advantage of all the good stuff that happens while sleeping. But, we don’t. We tend to sleep less. Referring back to our hibernating friends, the amount of daylight is so important to behavior that squirrels can be tricked into hibernating by shortening the amount of light they’re exposed to. They’ll hibernate regardless of the temperature or time of year.
Research is showing that longer winter sleeps may not only improve mood, but has a direct correlation between weight loss and longevity. A study conducted at the University of Chicago on healthy non-obese subjects suggested that short sleep cycles may promote insulin resistance, weight gain and the development of type 2 diabetes.
Additionally, long sleep can stimulate human reproductive cycles and increase sex drive. Short winter sleeps may have the opposite effect on certain regulating hormones, which is why some medical authorities propose the majority of SAD patients are women.

Help for those who suffer

Exercise, fresh air and exposure to sunlight can help alleviate symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder./Associated Press

For you, the sufferer from the winter blues, there are several measures you can take to help lessen its effects. One is simply getting outside in the fresh air. If you feel down, start taking walks, particularly on sunny days. Also exercise. Get your butt to a gym. The influence exercise on improving mood and feelings of well-being is well documented. In one study, it was found that short workouts (as little as 10 minutes), can dramatically reduce symptoms of depression.
It’s also been shown that participation in one single session of lifting weights is sufficient to produce positive changes in self-esteem. A study on the usefulness of exercise for preventing the recurrence of major depressive disorders suggests that exercise was at least as effective in prevention as some antidepressants.
Another way to help combat the winter blues is to get more omega-3 fatty acid in your diet. This compound, found in fish, flaxseeds, canola oil, leafy green vegetables, walnuts and grass-fed beef, has been shown to help ease depression. A study of Canadians of Icelandic descent showed low levels of SAD, which may be attributed in part to the large amount of fish eaten by Icelandic people.
In addition to physical activity and diet, the World Health Organization has recognized acupuncture as an effective treatment for moderate depression. Used for centuries for many disorders, studies show that acupuncture can change levels of brain chemicals which may ease the blues.
There are also many other therapies used to treat all seasonal mood disorders. These include light therapy, pharmacotherapy, group therapy, problem-solving therapy, positive psychotherapy and occupational therapy to name a few. One of the most intriguing is mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT).
MBCT is an intervention that addresses the patterns associated with negative thinking by cultivating mindfulness through meditation and self-awareness exercises. The practice of mindfulness, which has its roots in Buddhism, teaches you to live each moment as it happens. The idea is to focus attention on what is going on in the present and accept it without judgment, then let it go. Dr. Michael Miller, editor-in-chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter notes, “Mindfulness meditation can help prevent relapse in people who have had several past episodes of major depression.”
Finally, severe cases of SAD, which can include symptoms such as complete hopelessness and thoughts of suicide, need to be diagnosed and treated by mental health professionals. In addition, as many as twenty percent of SAD cases may suffer from a bipolar disorder (manic-depressive disorder). It’s important for medical professionals to distinguish between the two in order to prescribe the correct therapy.
For more information on seasonal depression, you can contact the non-profit group National Alliance on Mental Health If you need someone to talk to, the national helpline number is 1-800-950-6264.

Hit the Road: Finding the Right Bike

Mark William Lisky is a fitness expert and professional speaker. He specializes in fitness for people over 50 and using exercise as preventive medicine. If you have any questions about fitness or you want to start an exercise program, drop in and talk to Mark. He has offices at the New Shrewsbury Racquet Club, Tinton Falls and Bio-Balance Fitness, Rumson or call (732) 933-9070, e-mail:

If you liked this story, you’ll love our newspaper. Click here to subscribe

You may also like