February 5, 2018

Don’t be SAD, take this advice on beating the winter blues

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — The dog days of winter have arrived. The holiday season is gone, temperatures are low and skies are gray. It’s the time of year when many say they have the “winter blues” and feel that the spring thaw can’t get here soon enough. Now a Purdue professor is offering tips on perking up mentally and feeling better physically.

Susan Kersey, clinical assistant professor in the Purdue School of Nursing, says feeling sluggish in colder months is normal, but attention needs to be paid to make sure that the winter blues aren’t really Seasonal Affective Disorder.

“SAD is a type of depression and it can severely impair your daily life,” Kersey said. “It occurs when there is a cyclical, seasonal pattern between the beginning and ending of an episode of depression. This means that signs and symptoms usually come back and go away at the same times every year.”

While there is no specific cause known, there are several factors that can play a role in developing SAD, including age, genetics, and the body’s natural chemical makeup. Many researchers think sunlight is a major factor, with shorter days and longer nights either increasing the sleep-regulating hormone melatonin, or decreasing the mood-affecting chemical serotonin.

Kersey says other risk factors include family history and geography.

“The farther a person lives from the Equator, the more likely they are to develop SAD,” she said. “And someone who has the disorder is more likely to have family members with the condition.”

Kersey says there are several things that people can do to fight the winter blues and cut the chances of developing SAD, ranging from the easy and affordable - spending time with friends, starting a small project to create a distraction and sense of accomplishment, and even wearing bright colors to trick your brain into thinking it’s warm and sunny outside – to the more expensive and involved.

Sun lamps and light boxes that make up for the lack of sunlight in winter have been shown to boost moods and are readily available in stores and online.

“I found natural sunlight bulbs or full spectrum bulbs are best when placed in a lamp near a window to mimic natural sunlight,” Kersey said. “Indirect exposure is enough, and about 20-30 minutes per day of reading the paper, or a book in front of it is recommended.”

Of course, there are natural ways to get more sunlight, and Kersey says that bundling up and stepping outside for a few minutes - even when it’s frigid – can provide a vitamin D boost to the brain’s limbic system. If you’d rather go south where it’s warmer, she recommends taking a vacation to a sunny spot in late January or February when days are shorter, rather than over spring break, though that might not be possible for everyone.

Limiting stress, exercising, getting enough rest, limiting sugar and increasing omega-3 fatty acid intake - whether via diet or supplements - are also easy steps to beat the blues, but Kersey emphasizes that if these do not bring your mood up, you must seek help from a medical professional.

“Most people experience some days when they feel down,” she said. “But if you feel down for days at a time, you can’t seem to get motivated to do activities you normally enjoy or if you ever feel like ending your life or that your life isn’t worth living, don’t turn to alcohol or unprescribed drugs for relief, see your doctor or nurse practitioner.” 

Writer: Tim Doty, 765-496-2571, doty2@purdue.edu

Source: Susan Kersey, sjkersey@purdue.edu

Note to Journalists: Kersey is available for interviews, please contact Tim Doty, 765-496-2571, doty2@purdue.edu to schedule.

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