Getting Through Winter Isn’t Easy
by Jennifer Brizzi
Winter’s sunlight deprivation makes us cranky. Lower light levels affect the circadian rhythms that govern our hormones and brain waves. Serotonin, that happiness chemical, drops; melatonin rises. We have no energy and we sleep more. We crave carbs and eat too much. We lose interest in our favorite activities and people. Apathy increases. We stay inside and mope around.
A few years ago a study compared Brazilian rubber workers living at the Equator with Swedish miners within the Arctic Circle. The authors of the study posited that insufficient natural light exposure affects sleep and thereby causes depression and other health problems. The Brazilians experience an even 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness each day year-round; the Swedes have only an hour or less of dim light during the winter and all sun in the summer.
The data was collected from 2011-2013 and the Brazilians used as the reference group for the study. Although the frequency of mood disorders does increase the further from the Equator that you get, previous studies had had mixed results, some claiming that latitude has no bearing on sleep or mood issues.
When the results were tallied, the Brazilians reported worse sleep quality and more sleepiness than the Swedes, but had less depression and fewer problems with insufficient sleep and awakening too soon. They were happier with their leisure time. However, as a group the Brazilians tended to have lower education levels, more smoking, more night work and more working 50 hours or more a week. So it appears that social factors seemed to come into play. In any case the conclusion was, “Reduced exposure to natural light appears to increase the perception of obtaining insufficient sleep. Arctic workers were more prone to develop depression than Equatorial workers.”
That having a minimal amount of light can affect one’s well-being has been well documented. Marc Bennetts visited Murmansk, Russia, where the 40-day polar night period from December 3 to January 11 offers only “an unsettling semi-twilight “every day for a few hours mid-day. He reported for Esquire magazine that he tried ice-bathing to help the “polar night blues” he experienced. He was told that it would boost his immune system, give him a lift and that it was good for the health. Another person advised that it wouldn’t help anyone deal with the polar night and that you just have to deal with it as best you can or move south. Yet another told him that during that time of year you can’t sleep at night, you wake up early and you feel drowsy all day every day. A Russian study in 2013 found increased mental and emotional disorders, alcoholism and suicide in the region, as well as heart and lung problems.
So Bennetts took the plunge, jumping in icy water with just shorts on, and although his first sensation was euphoria, that quickly changed to a panicked fight-or-flight feeling. He did not note if it helped him deal with the polar night better afterwards.
Around here we experience normal amounts of daylight; in mid-winter our night lasts from just before 5 pm until a little after 6 am. Up to 20 percent of Americans experience SAD, or seasonal affective disorder, a crippling affliction that takes the form of severe seasonal depression, with feelings of deep sadness, fatigue and hopelessness.
Whether you suffer from serious SAD or just have an unshakeable case of the winter blues, there are remedies beyond reminding yourself that spring is just around the corner.
You can wear bright colors, catch up on indoor projects and activities, from organizing your closets to binge-watching Netflix (with moderation, of course, and a choice of lighter fare, and nothing too dark). You can knit a thick, cozy sweater to get you through next winter. You can learn a new skill, take a class.
Don’t isolate yourself; spend time with people, especially happy, upbeat, positive people if possible, whose attitudes may rub off on you. Enjoy happy-making comfort foods like chicken noodle soup, mac and cheese and chili, supplementing them with lots of healthy foods like lean proteins, complex carbs, winter fruits such as tangerines and pears and bananas (which contain calming chemicals), vibrant veggies like sweet potatoes and squash, and robust greens from swiss chard to collard greens. Eat vitamin D-rich foods like fish, eggs and mushrooms, and/or take supplements; get vitamin B-12 from pills or foods such as clams, crab and eggs. Get your omega-3s from salmon or flax seeds. All these viteys can improve your mood, and dark chocolate has been known to work well, too!
Any way that you can increase your exposure to light is going to be good. Warm your bones with a fire in the fireplace or even just a few candles. Take a few minutes each day to get outside and breathe in the brisk air; even ten to fifteen minutes will refresh your mind. Besides the light exposure the exercise will cheer you while your brain releases endorphins and serotonin. Consider using a light box, usually for half an hour or so in the morning (add some guided meditation). Light boxes are often prescribed as treatment for SAD, but can help the rest of us get through the dark days as well.
But also remember: as soon as the winter blues slip away, spring fever comes along! Allergies kick in, we get strange sudden bursts of energy, a need to get out there and move that has eluded us all winter long. We feel strong urges to clean the house or have some sex. We’re craving fruits and salads. Melatonin levels drop and we may sleep considerably less. Serotonin rises in our systems and we feel just plain happier.
Remember, too, that then is when the dark days of winter again become just a distant memory.