If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant; if we did not sometimes taste adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.
Anne Bradstreet (17th century poet)
Like many others, I adore the spring and summer—relishing the sunshine, the vibrant blues and greens that dominate the outside palette, and the long hours of summer daylight. One of the greatest thrills I have ever experienced was to be in Northern Europe in June where it stayed light until near midnight. I feel most alive when exposed to sunlight, warmth, vibrant natural colors, scents such as honeysuckle and lilacs, and the background white noise of cicadas. How delightful it is to be outdoors scantily clad in shorts and a short-sleeved shirt—cycling, playing tennis or golf, or just throwing a Frisbee for my English Springer Spaniel, Charley Morgan.
Light profoundly affects my mood. Sitting in my living room on one of those days when the sun is in and out behind a cover of clouds, I am made acutely aware of how a sudden darkening of my environment makes me gloomy and a sudden lightening makes me happy. I can virtually dial up my mood when the brightness of the lighting in my basement or living room is controlled with a rheostat.
I am among the 5-10% of the population that suffer with an affliction known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.). The prevalence of S.A.D. is highest towards the north and south poles and lowest at the equator. It is quite common in the Scandinavian countries, where light is in limited supply during the winter. Due to the very short winter days, these winter blues are characterized by variable degrees of melancholy brought on by the dark, cold and colorless external environment. The feelings of hibernation and stagnancy are distinctly unpleasant for any of us who are afflicted with S.A.D. I am fortunate to be affected in only a mild way, much less so than many who suffer with depression, concentration issues, loss of energy and sexual drive, sleep disturbances, exhaustion, and withdrawal from friends, family and social activities. Various theories have been proposed to explain S.A.D., including a biochemical basis involving the chemicals serotonin and melatonin, but the jury is still out on the precise underlying basis.
Cold weather and darkness also directly affect our eating behaviors; they seem to conspire against healthy and disciplined consumption patterns and beg for relief by means of comfort foods. For many of us, winter fosters a type of foraging activity that causes us to satisfy carbohydrate cravings and seek solace in rich, heavy foods including stews, creamy soups and starches. Additionally, being more housebound in the winter leaves abundant opportunities for “boredom” eating, providing fewer distractions from eating that are possible in the warmer times of the year. The sleep disturbance that many with S.A.D. experience can lead to “fatigue” eating. During winter, outdoor exercise/activities dramatically decline; at the same time, there is less availability of healthy fresh fruits and vegetables that are abundant in summer. There is less opportunity for grilling, a healthier form of cooking than many other alternatives. Unfortunately, all of the forces discussed above can work together and lead to winter weight gain.
So what to do to cope with S.A.D. causing the winter doldrums and the potential for unhealthy weight gain? Options include melatonin supplements (a naturally-occurring hormone that maintains our circadian rhythms); anti-depressant medications; and cognitive-behavioral therapy or occupational therapy (both of which can help S.A.D. sufferers function at more optimal levels during their “dark” times). My preference is to use exercise as an effective means of keeping the blues at bay. It nudges the pharmacy within to release a cocktail of “happy” chemicals including serotonin (which modulates mood, emotion, sleep and appetite). A daily dose of exercise will not only help release the natural anti-depressants within, but will burn calories and help prevent the weight gain. I wholeheartedly recommend tapping into our own pharmacy within before reaching for the products of Big Pharma.
If you can swing it, a winter vacation to a nice sun-drenched Caribbean island can be just what the doctor ordered. If this is not feasible, a therapeutic bright light box is an alternative that can provide the much-needed daily dose of light. Another tonic to soothe the blues is music, capable of producing a steep rise in a listener’s serotonin levels. Ultimately, having purpose and remaining busy, productive and engaged in meaningful activities is one of the best means of staying focused and keeping the effects of S.A.D. at bay. So whatever it is you choose to do to chase those blues away, do it with passion and gusto.
In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.
Andrew Siegel, M.D.
Author of Promiscuous Eating: Understanding and Ending Our Self-Destructive Relationship With Food
Available at http://www.PromiscuousEating.com; e-book available on Amazon.