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Beating the winter blues
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The sun will rise at 7:41 a.m. on Monday. And it will set at 5:46 a.m. that same day. That means that we will have 10 hours of daylight on Monday. We have already passed the shortest day of the year – the winter solstice was on December 21. With the recent grey and rainy weather of the past couple weeks, it may seem like these are all short days of daylight, if we even see the sun at all. I recently was asked by a friend if London had relocated to Covington. I then had to explain to my very literal 3-year-old the concept of sarcasm.

But all sarcasm aside, the lack of sun does affect us.

As the days get shorter and we have less natural light, many people find themselves feeling sad. Sometimes you may feel slower, a little more tired, or just “bummed.” However, other times you may actually develop what is known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a depression that occurs in fall or winter and ends in spring or early summer. It is estimated that 10 to 20 percent suffers from some form of mild “winter blues” while 4 to 6 percent of the population suffers from SAD.

It will come as no surprise for most that rates for both are lower in the South. But this is still a real issue that many of us deal with in the winter.

Reduced sunlight in winter can disrupt your circadian rhythms, physical, mental and behavioral changes controlled by your body’s 24-hour internal “master” clock. During the day, your brain sends signals to other parts of the body to help keep you awake and ready for activity. At night, a tiny gland in the brain produces a chemical called melatonin, which helps you sleep.

Shortened daylight hours in winter can alter this natural rhythm and lead to SAD in some people or “winter blues” in others. People with SAD tend to be withdrawn, have low energy, be withdrawn, feel tired all the time or oversleep. Without treatment, these symptoms generally last until the days start getting longer.

If you’re feeling sad this winter, and if the feelings last for several weeks, talk to a health care provider.

Another symptom of SAD and “winter blue” is putting on weight. That’s because brain chemicals such as serotonin are sensitive to light. A person with low serotonin levels is prone to craving carbohydrates, such as cakes, cookies, pasta, and breads, which help the brain to release serotonin but can also contribute to weight gain, headaches, and mood swings.

There are many ways to address your circadian rhythms and low serotonin levels. Increasing your level of activity during the day will help your natural circadian rhythm “keep wound.” That could be a brisk walk outside with your dog, getting some of that much-needed and sometimes-missed sunlight as well as the quality time with your pet. It could be trying something new and outside your normal routine, like taking that spinning class your friend has invited you to take. The anticipation of something new, the socializing with a friend, and the activity are all good for increasing your serotonin levels and stabilizing your circadian rhythms. You can still celebrate a birthday with a big slice of cake or enjoy that comforting bowl of hot, cheese grits on a frosty morning. But if you are balancing out your natural levels of serotonin, you will crave those “comfort” foods less.

Although studies show that SAD and “winter blues” go away on their own as spring arrives and daylight increases, this could take five months or more. And five months out of this year is a long time to be impaired.

Hosanna Fletcher has lived in Newton County since 2005. With a Masters in Public Health and another in Sociology, she has worked on a variety of community development projects, led training sessions for Lay Health Advisors, conducted and evaluated health risk assessments, and designed and implemented employee wellness programs. Hosanna and her husband Kevin, a Newton County native, have been married for 15 years this October. They have two children — Miranda, 11, and Thomas, 3.