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On the Horizon for Public Health: How to overcome the winter blues

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Marcia Schroeder
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ALEXANDRIA — The holidays can be filled with parties and celebrations, then it all ends abruptly.

The return to normal can result in an emotional slump. It is not unusual to experience a decline in your emotional well-being going into January and February.

Clinical research tells us that for many people there is a link between lower mood and the lower amount of daylight you get during the day. This temporary mood has commonly been referred to as the “winter blues.” If feelings of sadness during the winter months also affects your daily functioning, it may be clinically referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD may develop into a mild to moderate winter depression and melancholy. Some can even experience a more severe case.

Approximately 10 million Americans are affected every winter by SAD. SAD often starts to become evident in the autumn months, peaks in the winter, but usually resolves in spring. As available sunlight is reduced, melatonin and serotonin levels in the brain get disrupted. Symptoms of SAD can include lower mood, anxious feelings, inability to stay focused on work or home tasks, lowered self-esteem, longer sleep duration or other disruptions in a person’s sleep-wake cycle, craving for carbohydrates, weight gain and low energy and physical activity levels.

You can take steps to ward off SAD.

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  • Get daylight exposure as soon as possible upon waking up. Try maintaining sleep, exercise and eating routines in sync with your summer routine. Daily routines can help lower stress, improve sleep, and boost your health.
  • Avoid stimulants like coffee, tea or heavy meals close to bedtime.
  • Exercise during the day to increase serotonin production to support your sleep-wake cycle. Walking briskly for just 12 minutes can improve your mood, even if you walk on a treadmill.
  • Eat a balanced diet of complex carbs, such as grains, beans or fruit, and healthy proteins, such as meat, poultry, fish or eggs to support steady serotonin and melatonin production.
  • Develop the habit of downtime before bed, which can reduce stress. Try turning off all screens at least 20 minutes before bedtime. Social media can make anxiety symptoms worse, and significant internet usage can lead to, or make worse, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), impulsive disorder, paranoia, and loneliness.
  • Consider adding a light therapy box to your work and home environment. Use it to “normalize" your natural light exposure to be closer to 12 hours of daylight.
  • If you feel down for days at a time and can’t get motivated to do activities you normally enjoy, see your health care provider.

SAD makes it difficult for many people to find joy in everyday life. But even if you just are experiencing the "winter blues,” trying some of these ideas may help manage our Minnesota winter. You can learn more by visiting www.mayoclinic.org . Type SAD in the search bar.

Marcia Schroeder is a registered nurse with Horizon Public Health, which serves five counties, including Douglas County. Contact Schroeder at marcias@horizonph.org.

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