Avoiding the SAD-ness of winter

It's important to take care of your mind and body in the winter in order to avoid seasonal affective disorder

The season of frozen sidewalks, 20-degree wind chill and dark, cloudy skies is upon us. The winter is a tough time for many but, Syracuse natives, from November until the last days of April, deal with few days of sunlight and face an average of more than 10 feet of snow per year, according to the National Weather Service. 

“One of the things that happens when people binge with food is that it releases serotonin, which is a mood stabilizer, so the active binging, in some ways, is a form of self-medication for depression."
- Karen Schwartz

Some call it the “winter blues,” but medically, it’s called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). It is a type of depression that some suffer from during the winter and it develops from experiencing an insufficient amount of sunlight and dealing with a bitter winter climate, according to the U.S National Library of Medicine. The symptoms are very similar to depression and may include anxiety, irritability, loss of interest in hobbies, loss of motivation, hopelessness, and changes in weight and appetite. 

Those that are dealing with depression often reach out for some form of comfort to enhance their mood, and for many that is food, according to Karen Scanlon, a nutrition and wellness counselor at Intuit Nutrition in Syracuse.  

Karen Schwartz, a licensed mental health counselor, said that some people binge-eat to ease their feelings of sadness from both depression and SAD because the disorder is just a narrower and more temporary version of depression.

“One of the things that happens when people binge with food is that it releases serotonin, which is a mood stabilizer, so the active binging, in some ways, is a form of self-medication for depression,” she said. 

Serotonin is created in the brain and intestines, and at high levels, it can help with mood balance and overall happiness, according to Medical News Today. 

Mary Kate McGarigal, a law student at Syracuse University who has been diagnosed with depression, explained that winters are especially hard for her, but she tries to combat her downs by changing up her daily routine, taking some time to be outside and accomplishing small tasks throughout the day. 

"The entire world feels gray when your’re depressed, even if the sun is bright and shining, so when it’s gray out, it just seems worse,” McGarigal said. “So you have to find something that makes you happy to be able to just break through the gray."

Scanlon also stressed the importance of vitamin D supplements and said residents in the central New York area should make sure to take them during the winter.

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, 10 to 15 minutes of sun at least three times a week is enough to produce enough vitamin D that the human body requires. However, with the limited sun that people living in Syracuse have access to during the winter, it causes many to have lower than average levels, with 46 percent of sunny days per year, according to the National Climate Data Center.

There are various vitamin D receptors in the brain and some are found in areas of the brain that are linked to depression. Increasing intake can improve or prevent symptoms, according to the Vitamin D Council.

Syracuse resident Rachel Blair, 31, explained that she has lived in this city since she was 3 years old and is used to the snowy winters. However, being vitamin D deficient, she notices the difference in her mood, level of anxiety and cravings for treats when the snow begins to fall. However, her overall state of being is strongly affected by the sun.

“When I spent two years on worker’s compensation it gave me the opportunity to go to the beach,” Blair said. “I literally laid there from sun up until sun down, and by the end of the summer, I felt better than I had ever felt in my entire life.”

People tend to reach out to specific foods based on an association they made in their youth, according to Scanlon, and it becomes a habit in their adulthood to eat those same things, especially when their mood is unbalanced.

“Chocolate,” McGarigal said. “It’s my go to. When I’m on my period and I’m feeling depressed it’s chocolate.”

Scanlon explained that many of these quick carbs, like bread and chocolate, allow someone to feel better instantly. However, she warns that constantly eating sugar and processed foods to feel better will wire your body with false stimulation and can lead to issues with adrenal and granular systems.

She suggested accepting that the winter is a slow-moving season and allowing time to relax because it can be an important factor in keeping your mood consistent.

“Respect that you’re in a season, and I’m not saying we’re meant to hibernate, but we’re certainly not meant to burn the candle at both ends,” Scanlon said. “You are in sync with the earth. The sap is in the ground, all the leaves fell, everything is asleep and everything is dormant. Essentially, that’s what your body is going to want to do."

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