Winter is here, and even though the days are getting longer, it still seems like we get precious little sunlight in January. Living in Kodiak in the winter can be challenging and even depressing at times, especially when the weather is dark, gloomy, cold and windy. Some people may even note a change in their energy level, sleeping patterns, weight or food intake due to winter. There is a condition called seasonal affective disorder, which results in a seasonal depression or mania, and affects 10-15 percent of the population. It is hypothesized that people living in higher latitudes may have a higher prevalence.
Winter depression is the most common seasonal affective disorder. Depression is evidenced by some of the following symptoms: feeling sad, empty or hopeless, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, weight changes (gain or loss), sleep changes (too much or too little), guilt, poor concentration, fatigue, hyperactivity or decreased activity, feeling worthless, thinking a lot about death. Everyone can experience some of these symptoms at any time in their lives, but when the symptoms persist for over two weeks almost every day, and when they get in the way of normal daily activities, medical help may be needed. Some people self-medicate their condition with alcohol or drugs, which is not a good long-term solution and could result in addiction or other negative health consequences.
Sleep is an important part of our daily routine, but our bodies can be fooled into not sleeping or sleeping too much if we have poor sleep hygiene. One of the major symptoms of seasonal affective disorder is sleep disturbance. One way to help is to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Light can affect our sleep patterns as well, so avoiding blue-lit screens for a few hours prior to sleep may be helpful. For winter depression, waking up to a bright light (dawn simulating alarm clock) can help decrease symptoms. Avoid reading, eating or watching television in bed. If you do not fall asleep within 20 minutes of lying down, try to get up and perform a relaxing activity like reading or listening to calming music in another room until you feel sleepy. Limiting caffeine in the afternoon and avoiding long naps are other good sleep hygiene habits.
Exercise can help us sleep better and can help with winter depression. Just 20 minutes a day can improve mood and energy levels. Try not to exercise late in the evening, but allow yourself at least four to five hours of down time prior to bedtime. Going outside even on cloudy days can help depressive symptoms, as can increasing ambient light during the day. Artificial bright white light therapy is also helpful, especially if used in the mornings for 30 minutes.
If exercise, good sleep hygiene, and light therapy are not effective in helping winter depression, an anti-depressant may be prescribed. Talk to your primary care provider about your symptoms, because most people do improve with treatment. Winter seems to last a long time, but spring will come! Let me encourage you to seek help if you are experiencing depression.
“My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:26).
Janet Abadir is a board certified general surgeon practicing at the Specialty Clinic at Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center.