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Don't Be Blue - Does winter got you singing the blues?

old message Don't Be Blue - Does winter got you singing the blues? Darrell Miller 06/13/05


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Date: June 13, 2005 09:49 AM
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Subject: Don't Be Blue - Does winter got you singing the blues?

Don't Be Blue by Phyllis D. Light, RH Energy Times, October 10, 2003

Have the gray skies of winter got you singing the blues? Do you feel tired, lost your creative spark, need extra sleep, can't get control of your appetite? If you nod in agreement to these queries, you may be one of the millions of people affected by SAD (seasonal affective disorder), also known as the "winter blues" or "cabin fever." Time to lighten up, throw off those lowdown winter blues and step up to more enjoyable feelings. Experts who study the winter blahs now acknowledge that you can blame much of winter's crankiness, moodiness and restlessness on short, cloudy days and a lack of sunlight. Low levels of sunlight trigger changes in hormones, increasing levels of melatonin (a hormone that normally helps you go to sleep) and decreasing serotonin (a hormone that improves mood). For many people, this hormonal tumult translates into a craving for sugary foods, a need for more sleep and a reduced sex drive.

Although the exact cause of SAD is not known, researchers believe the pineal gland plays an important role in this disorder. This gland, located beneath the brain, makes melatonin in response to the amount of light that enters your eyes. Melatonin hormone is only produced in darkness. The darker your bedroom, the greater your melatonin production.

Conversely, melatonin production usually stops in the morning when you open your eyes to the day's new light. But research shows that the production of melatonin climbs too high in folks who suffer from SAD. That excessive amount of the hormone results in a sedative effect upon the body.

Many people with SAD suffer muscular aches and pains, along with headaches and a faltering immune system. Consequently, they often feel like they have the flu all winter long.

Blue Lady

More women than men suffer from SAD (and, apparently, depression in general), though the reason is unclear.

According to Norman Rosenthal, MD, author of Winter Blues (Guilford Press), "about 6% of the US population may suffer from SAD, with an additional 14% suffering from subsyndromal [less severe] SAD." Because less sunlight reaches the northern latitudes, folks in Washington state and Alaska suffer the highest rates of SAD. People in sun-soaked Florida suffer the least.

How do you escape SAD? If a winter vacation to the sunny South is out of the question for you, a natural program can brighten the wintry gray days and provide relief.

Turn on the Light

The most common treatment for SAD is light (also called phototherapy), which cuts back the body's manufacture of melatonin. Sitting in front of a special light box for about 30 minutes each morning during the winter months can often offset SAD. But the effects of this treatment vary from individual to individual, and some may be more sensitive to the light therapy than others.

For artificial light treatment, consult an appropriately trained healthcare professional who can design a plan that finds the optimal intensity, length and time of day for the treatment that best works for you. Researchers at Columbia University have found that timing the light therapy with the nuances of a person's biological clock doubles its effectiveness (Archives of General Psychiatry 1/15/01).

On the other hand, walking in natural light can banish these problems, and research finds that natural light frequently offers the best results (Journal of Affective Disorders 1996 Apr 12; 37(2-3):109-20). In this study, people either participated in a daily walk outdoors in natural light or were treated for half an hour in artificial light. At the end of the study, participants were tested for melatonin and cortisol (stress hormone) levels. Both were found to be lower after exposure to natural light than artificial light.

Roll up those sleeves when you're outdoors this winter: Curiously enough, studies show that light produces physiological effects by being absorbed through both the eyes and the skin.

Research now shows that light on the skin alters the hemoglobin in the blood. "This research suggests that SAD might be a disorder of the blood rather than a brain disorder," says Dan A. Oren, MD, of the Yale University School of Medicine (Science 1/12/98).

Vitamin D Need

If you suffer from seasonal depression, you may also not be getting enough vitamin D. During the sun-reduced winter months, stores of this fat-soluble vitamin drop, since the skin makes it when exposed to sunlight. When you step out into daylight, the sebaceous glands near the surface of your body produce an oily substance from cholesterol that rises to the skin's surface. Then, ultraviolet B rays from the sun convert this oily substance (7-dehydrocholesterol) into what is called previtamin D3. Finally, body heat converts previtamin D3 into vitamin D3 (a form of vitamin D).

Twenty minutes of daily sunlight exposure on the hands, arms and face can give adequate amounts of vitamin D to light-skinned people. Dark-skinned people may need longer exposure. Supplements can help: In one study, researchers found that people who took vitamin D had significant improvement in depression scale scores (Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging 1999; 3(1):5-7).

As far as vitamin D production goes, you can never receive too much sunlight (although overexposure resulting in a burn is never a good idea). The body absorbs vitamin D from the skin as needed and never accepts more than is required. (If you take supplements, follow package directions so you don't get too much of a good thing.) Food sources of vitamin D include eggs, fortified milk, cod liver oil, salmon and other fish.

Walk Away the Blues

Research also shows that exercise can chase the winter blues and that a little bit of exertion goes a long way. Exercise physiologists at Duke University found that little as eight minutes of physical activity can improve your mood.

Exercise stimulates the brain to produce endorphins, feel-good hormones that help reduce pain and depression. Physical activity can also increase serotonin levels, those neurotransmitters that brighten emotions. These two hormones work together to make you feel better: Serotonin improves the functioning of your mind while endorphins produce beneficial effects on your body. In one study, researchers reported that exercise increased vitality and improved mood even in cases of prolonged depression (Psychological Medicine 1998 Nov; 28(6):1359-64).

To banish SAD, engage in an outdoor activity in natural light, or get active indoors under bright lights.

As you can see, much of the research into low, wintry moods suggests that sun worshippers may have been right all along: Exposure in winter to our friendly, local neighborhood star offers impressive mood benefits.



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