Preparing Your Mood for Winter

Winter depression strikes our northernmost friends far sooner.

Posted Aug 22, 2019

The sales clerk at the sporting goods store in Anchorage told us she was from New Jersey, and last year had spent her first winter in this furthermost northern state. Her husband’s military duty was the reason for living in a place where winter could start as early as September. When we asked her how she managed last winter, she told us that it was the darkness and not the cold that affected her. “I didn’t know what was happening to me,” she said.” I thought I was sick. All I wanted to do was sleep. I found myself crying all the time, and it was hard to get myself out of the house and to go to work. I went to the local health food store for help, but even though I took a whole bunch of vitamins, it didn’t make any difference. I am not sure I will survive another winter here.”

“You probably have seasonal affective disorder,” we told her, assuming she knew about this seasonal depression first identified in the mid-l980s. But she had never heard of it. When we described the symptoms—fatigue, need to sleep more hours, increased appetite, depression, and difficulty in engaging in work or social activities—she said she had experienced all of them.

During our trip to Alaska these late summer days we asked Alaskans whom we met (like a woman with her two children in a park) how they were managing. The answers were always the same: the cold, the rain, or snow is bad, but the darkness is worse. Indeed, even though the days are still very long, there seemed to be a sense of dread of the known. “Winter is nine months here,” another woman told us. “June is spring, July is summer and August, fall. And then winter. “

Preparations for the cold were everywhere, from firewood stacked up outside houses to gigantic down-filled parkas hanging in stores. But we wondered whether preparations were being made to handle the mental /emotional effects of many months with too few hours of sunlight. The saleswoman spoke with dread about the coming winter, but seemed resigned to being unable to prevent the depression that had affected her the year before. Others spoke wistfully of May, when spring seems to be on steroids but, like the salesclerk, unhappy about the long months of winter ahead.

Of course, the effect of darkness on mental and emotional well-being is not limited to the 49th state. Many in the northern tier of the lower 48 suffer from the same deterioration in mood, performance, energy, and control over eating because of the late sunrises and early sunsets that are noticeable by late fall. And although many of us will make sure we have enough heating oil for the winter, check on the state of our snow shovels or snow blowers, and make sure our windows are draft proof, we too may not take steps to ameliorate these changes.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (“SAD”) is a depressive disorder limited mostly to the months in which hours of darkness are greater than hours of daylight. How the lack of environmental light affects mood, appetite, and loss of energy is still being studied. Currently, it is thought that serotonin activity is inhibited or dampened by the lack of sunlight, and this change is responsible for the mood, appetite, energy and sleep changes experienced by those with this depression. Exposure to a particular type of artificial light that mimics sunlight may increase serotonin activity and relieve these symptoms. Thus, one widely-used therapy is to have someone with SAD sit in front of a light box, a device containing a broad-spectrum fluorescent bulb emitting white light. People with SAD are advised to sit in front of the box for about 30 minutes early in the morning soon after they awaken. We asked the sales clerk whether she was going to use a light box during the coming winter, but she did not know what we were talking about. After suggesting that she talk with her physician about their use, we left wondering why this had not been suggested last winter when she was so miserable.

Not everyone feels their SAD relenting when they use light therapy, and it is not clear if it has much impact on the urge to eat more. Antidepressants that increase serotonin activity are also used, especially when the depression interferes with the ability to work and engage in social activities. Eating more carbohydrates also works, and many people do this naturally. Cooking magazines advertise recipes for comfort meals around October. The dishes usually feature potatoes, dumplings, pasta, beans, and rice in casseroles and stews. Justification for such heavy foods is often based on the need to eat starches to keep warm, an idea relevant if one lives in a snow cave, but these days it’s not so relevant with central heating. The benefit of eating starches is an increased production and activity of serotonin, as this brain chemical is made only when carbohydrates are consumed with little or no protein.

However, preparation for darkness-associated behavioral changes should extend beyond light boxes, potatoes, and antidepressants. Isolation exacerbates depression and it is wise to identify, before winter begins, activities that decrease aloneness, such as socializing with others in brightly lit environments. Many YMCAs are excellent places for people to meet. Working out or taking classes decreases the fatigue caused by SAD and many Y’s have community activities during the day and early evening. Libraries, adult education centers, and volunteer organizations offer places to go to be with others. One resident of a small town we visited in Alaska told us that there are daily activities at the community center so people would not feel depressed during the long dark winters. It is important to make a commitment to participating in activities during the late afternoon when sunset occurs by 4 or 5 pm. Otherwise, the temptation to crawl into bed at 7pm may overcome the benefit of leaving the house.

Unless one lives at the equator, those of us in the northern hemisphere will experience increased hours of darkness once we pass the fall equinox on September 23.

The right preparation may make the dark days more bearable.

References

“Light therapy and serotonin transporter binding in the anterior cingulate and prefrontal cortex,” Harrison S, Tyrer A, Levitan R et al Acta Psychiatr Scand. 2015; 132: 379–388.