For those who live above the 30th degree latitude winters can be a challenge. Between the cold weather and less daylight hours many suffer from “the winter blues”. What are the winter blues, and what are the symptoms? What do circadian rhythms have to do with winter blues and your health? And what can you do to reduce the symptoms?
Winter depression (or winter blues) is a common affliction for those who live in Northern climates. Its clinical name is seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and up to 5-10 percent of the population (mostly found in northern hemisphere) may suffer from it. The prevalence of this disorder increases the farther you live from the equator. Women are two to three times more likely to suffer from the winter blues than men.
Seasonal affective disorder can also impact people during the summer months (“the summer blues”),also, but it is less common. People suffering from SAD either are unable to function or function minimally during the season in which their disorder occurs.
Winter blues (aka “seasonal depression” or its more severe form, “seasonal affective disorder(SAD)”) is a series of symptoms that come on starting around early Fall and last until mid spring. Symptoms include:
- trouble concentrating
- increased appetite for carbohydrates
- low energy
- increased sleep/or waking up early (melatonin regulates cortisol levels, when melatonin levels are low cortisol levels can rise, causing you to wake up too early.)
- weight gain
- low to no motivation
Why does Seasonal affective disorder occur?
As our days get shorter there are less hours of light. If we lived a hundred years ago this wouldn’t be such a problem. We would work by oil or candlelight and go to bed early. But with our ever present availability of constant light at the flick of the switch our bodies are struggling with the altered cues of light/dark we give them.
Light is responsible for regulating a whole host of hormones. The best known is melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain. It helps regulate other hormones and maintains the light sensitive processes of one of the two of the body’s circadian rhythms. More on circadian rhythms later.
When it is dark, your body produces more melatonin. When it is light, the production of melatonin drops.
The type of light matters
Melatonin is affected by a certain light wavelength in the blue range. ( around the 460 nanometers range). Melatonin levels start to increase later in the day and into the night and fall as morning arrives. However, when the eyes are exposed to blue light melatonin levels can drop significantly. This can severely impair the sleep wake cycle.
Being exposed to bright lights in the evening, or too little light during the day, can disrupt the body’s normal melatonin cycles. For example, jet lag, shift work, and poor vision can disrupt melatonin cycles.
Health benefits of melatonin
Melatonin can not only suppress cancer cell growth or even cause cancer cell death, it also reaches other hormone producing glands, such as the ovaries and the pituitary gland. Also, melatonin has been found to absorb a free radicals. Free radicals are generated by ionizing radiation and are is estimated to cause almost 70% of biological damage to DNA, proteins, and cellular membranes.
Suppressing melatonin by light in the blue range at the wrong time of day(nighttime) can increase your odds for certain cancers, cause fertility problems, disrupt cardiovascular regulation, lipid and blood sugar problems, cause mental health issues such as bipolar and depression and overall mess with your hormones.
Understanding circadian rhythms
First of all what is “circadian rhythm?
The term circadian comes from the Latin, circa, meaning “around” (or “approximately”), and diēm, meaning “day”. The formal study of biological temporal rhythms, such as daily, tidal weekly, seasonal, and annual rhythms, is called chronobiology.
A master clock in the hypothalmus (in the suprachiasmatic nucleus, “SCN”) sets the time for all other body clocks. This clock regulates both the light (as explained above) and biologic time clocks. In fact every cell and organ in the body has this built in time biologic clock-termed “the peripheral clocks”. Both the light and biologic clocks are affected by genetics, internal cues and environment. The SCN houses both “clocks”, the light clock sets the pace for what the biologic clock does.
Detoxify and metabolize
The liver has its own circadian system. It is on an approximate 24 hour cycle which is NOT light dependent9 However, since exposure to light at the wrong time or any other interruption of the sleep wake cycle can alter the functions of the liver. One of the primary functions of the liver is to detoxify and metabolize medications and other chemicals so they can be excreted. Much of this work is done in the late evening/early morning.
Some of the other jobs of the liver are: lipid, amino acid and bile acid metabolism and regulation of glucose.
Factors that affect the metabolic and detoxification process:
- Feeding/fasting schedule/light or lack of at the wrong times, which affects the other systems
- Medications such as lithium lengthens the circadian rhythm. Beta blockers diminish or completely suppress the pineal melatonin secretion. Talk to your care provider about other options if this is an issue.
- Alcohol intake
- Disrupted sleep schedule (high cortisol levels will surpress melatonin- cortisol triggers the release of amino acids from the muscles, glucose from the liver, and fatty acids into the blood stream. This process helps you to wake up. However, If this occurs while the liver is carrying out the detoxification duties (in the night) detoxification doesn’t happen. This can lead to many metabolic dysregulations.
- Internal/external temperature
Disrupting the light sensitive circadian rhythm can adversely affect the liver through altered eating schedules, light exposure at the wrong time and activity levels.
If you can relate to the above symptoms of winter blues here are a few suggestions:
Take the test developed by the founder of Center for Environmental Therapeutics, Dr. Michael Terman. There are several free, confidential tests that can pinpoint your symptoms, timing of light,and a guide to select lighting:
Lighting, along with anything that interrupts the circadian cycle of the body can have severe consequences. No amount of pills will help. In order to live in our artificial world of light and activity :
- Limit blue light when it is dark out- this can be accomplished in several ways. There is a free download that cuts the blue light off computer and pads. I have also found it for the android phone I use. Set it for your latitude and time zone. It then automatically cuts out the blue light when the sun sets. The screen has a very faint reddish color to it. Here is the link: https://justgetflux.com/
- I have a pair of amber glasses I use that cuts the blue light. LED lights emit blue light. We have these in our home for the energy savings. THey are not very expensive, around 9 dollars on Amazon:https://www.amazon.com/Uvex-Blocking-Computer-Glasses-SCT-Orange/dp/B000USRG90/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1478710566&sr=8-3&keywords=blue+light+blocking+glasses
- Here is a wonderful website to inexpensively set up your house for low blue light: https://www.polyphasicsociety.com/polyphasic-sleep/adaptation/night-lighting/
- Your body naturally starts to increase cortisol levels about 30 minutes before you awake. This surge is what wakes you up and gets your body ready for the day. If your adrenal glands have been chronically stressed cortisol may not be available. This is a topic for another post, However there are dawn simulator lights that work fantastic. They help your body wake up naturally and can help reset your natural rhythm. After taking the test above you can set your schedule of light therapy: Here is a best seller on Amazon. We are using the Perc2 lamp right now but I don’t recommend it due to very confusing instructions. I am not sure of the ionizer on this model but it looks pretty good: https://www.amazon.com/NatureBright-SunTouch-Light-Therapy-package/dp/B000W8Y7FY/ref=sr_1_3_a_it?ie=UTF8&qid=1479049133&sr=8-3&keywords=dawn+simulator
- In order to keep melatonin from decreasing (and inversely cortisol levels increasing) a completely dark room where you sleep is imperative. No light from outside, no nightlights (unless you purchase blue block lights) even the your LED clock, no matter how faint can disrupt and decrease melatonin.
- Remove cellphone from your sleeping area or turn it off completely. Cellphones periodically flash light and this can disrupt your melatonin levels.
- Use a sleep mask, get used to wearing it all night without taking it off when you use the bathroom. Even a few seconds of low intensity light can drop melatonin levels dramatically.
- Optimize vitamin D levels. When supplementing with vitamin D it is important to also supplement with vitamin K2. K2 helps maintain calcium balance between the bones and blood.There are self test kits you can order to monitor your own. I use one from ZRT labs to periodically test. Here is a link: https://vitamindcouncil.zrtlab.com/
- Light therapy has been demonstrated to be very effective for alleviating many symptoms of SAD. The above site, cet.org has a wealth of information on how to use light and selection of lights.
- Get out and MOVE! Walk, jog, whatever, try to get outside every day, preferably when light is at its peak. The additional light really helps. It sends powerful signal to your brain as to what time it is, etc. Light intensity varies dramatically from morning to evening.
- Make it a point to not socially isolate. This can be a hard task when you are fighting excessive sluggishness, but social interaction really can bring down stress hormones and increase the “feel good” chemicals.
- Eat a balanced diet, high in proteins, “good fats” and vegetables. Steer away from simple sugars. They are energy zappers and can really mess with your moods. They deplete minerals such as magnesium which is know to have anti anxiety properties.
- Remember, this is only advice if you suspect winter blues. If your symptoms are more severe please seek the help of your healthcare professional.
- And of course, if able go south and be a snowbird- not feasible for many!
Of importance not related to winter blues: Research in light therapy has yielded significant positive outcomes with people suffering from major depression and bipolar illness. If you or a loved one is suffering from mental illness do NOT try to do your own light therapy. Please contact me and I will get you in touch with someone trained in this therapy. Light therapy is just as powerful as pills and someday I believe that it will be prescribed as a medication.
“Chronotherapeutics For Affective Disorders, a clinicians manual for light and wake therapy” Anna Wirz-Justice, Francesco Benedetti, and Dr. Michael , authors
The information provided in this post is for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or treat disease. Contact your primary care provider for your healthcare needs.