Bringing Light Into the Darkness

Posted: January 26, 2022

By Sheena Marrs

Tips to help you care for Seasonal Affective Disorder

Winter is a difficult time for many people. Accomplishing regular activities requires extra effort. Bundling up with additional layers of clothing, fighting your way through the snow to get groceries, and digging a path from your front door can seem daunting for the faint of heart.

And yes, sunshine—or the shortage thereof. Our energy is fueled by a few factors including nutrition, human connections, and daylight—all of which can be lacking in the winter and can cause negative affects to our physical and mental wellbeing.

The reasons to live in the Last Frontier are endless. Alaska is a melting pot of people from around the world, many who embrace the wonders and fruits of nature year-round. Yet others struggle to find balance and purpose during the long winter. Some have come from far to fulfill their childhood dream of living in the distant land, while others are proud to call Alaska the land of their ancestors. There is an idea among us that there are two seasons: winter and summer.

One commonality for all who dwell here is we have all felt the effects of shorter daylight hours. Alaskans experience biochemical changes in their brains due to the huge seasonal shifts. Decreased sunlight alters our biological clocks from the long days of summer to the long nights of winter.

Our body produces of two key brain chemicals: serotonin, the hormone that keeps us alert and happy; and melatonin, the hormone that helps us rest. The dark months of winter can confuse our circadian rhythm, causing sleep disruptions and chemical imbalances.

Our bodies do not know if it is day or night. We begin to crave carbohydrates, sleep and natural light. Winter can lower the spirits for those with mood disorders, especially seasonal affective disorder. Deprived of sufficient amount of sunlight, the human body can experience a drop in serotonin levels, which can trigger depression. A person who already struggles with depression or anxiety is at a higher risk of SAD, but it can affect anyone.

SAD may also be further compounded by social isolation caused by colder weather and the ongoing pandemic. People are choosing to be more socially withdrawn with fear of getting sick. While some Alaskans embrace winter and can resolve the darkness without experiencing forms of depression, others cope by using UV lights, antidepressants and vitamin D supplements.

The sun produces vitamin D in our bodies, which is important for keeping depression at bay. As we move into January, the dreary darkness of winter has settled into our psyches and depleted our stores of vitamin D. Almost every Alaskan will be impacted by the winter blues to some degree. Most will endure, experiencing only slight weight gain, tiredness and mild changes in their overall mood, but a few will fall into a deep depression.

Lots of people suffer worse in late January and February when cabin fever sets in. Law enforcement and health care workers claim higher instances of domestic violence and disturbances during these months. Daily hurdles that wouldn’t trigger much thought become insurmountable problems for those suffering from SAD, who often do not recognize their current mental states.

Recognize the Signs
Native communities struggle with an unusually high rates of suicide, as well as alcoholism and substance abuse year-round. Dark winters exacerbate social problems and mental health issues. People who experience SAD have symptoms that vary from mood swings to suicidal thoughts. The symptoms can sneak up on a person and go unnoticed. If you have never felt the effects of seasonal affective disorder, be aware of the signs so you can recognize if a loved one suffering from depression. It is important to be intentional about self-care and support during the winter to stave off seasonal affective issues.

Get Help
If you struggle to force yourself out of bed to go to work or care for your children, you may be experiencing more than the winter blues. Talk with someone you trust. Tell your health care provider, pastor or friend about any abnormal thoughts you may be experiencing and any issues with substance or alcohol abuse. Healthy coping skills involve learning to be emotionally self- aware and make safe choices. The first step in getting help is speaking up and seeking it. If you find it difficult to talk to a medical professional in person, there are other suicide prevention resources available:

• Alaska Careline at 877-266-HELP.
• Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium – Suicide Prevention
at 907-729-3751.
• Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation Emergency Services
at either 844-543-6499 or 907-543-6499.
• National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255

Fight the Winter Blues
Get back to your roots and get involved. Suicide rates tend to be lower among Alaska Natives who practice a more traditional lifestyle and are rooted in their community. With many social distancing restrictions still in place, consider setting aside time regularly to connect with family and friends by phone. Joining clubs or volunteering to connect with others with similar interests
is a powerful way to satisfy our need for human connection.

You Are Loved
Whether expressed or not, know that someone loves and cares for you. You have a purpose and are valued. It is especially difficult to recognize this in our lowest moments when our thoughts and days are entrenched with darkness.

Take Vitamin D
The issue is not just about the number of hours of sunlight, but also how well our skin can produce vitamin D from the sunlight. The bodies of Alaska Natives and other people with darker skin do not absorb vitamin D as well as those of white people, leaving them more susceptible to nutrient deficiencies. The recommended daily dose of vitamin D supplement varies from 400 IUs to 20,000 IUs. It is best to ask your health care provider about the right dose for you.

Get Physical
There is a list of excuses for not routinely exercising, too tired being one of the most common. Ironically, physical activity effectively combats a variety of the symptoms of SAD. Staying
motivated to get out and get moving during the winter is difficult even for the most health-conscious people. There are several great physical activities to consider when exercising outside is not an option:
• Play basketball at a local school.
• Dance at home to some favorite tunes.
• Try a new workout video by searching online.

Maintain a Healthy Diet
Eat traditional foods rich in vitamin D, such as salmon. Avoid consuming an abundance of processed food, which can leave you feeling sluggish.

The Power of Laughter
Laughter has powerful effects on our mood. A good dose of it will not only improve your mood but can help a family member or coworker get through a tough day in the winter. Consider enjoying a comedy movie that will make you and your loved ones laugh.

Get an Early Start on Spring Cleaning
It is easy to start feeling lazy and unproductive in the winter. While chores don’t sound like much fun, they can foster a sense of accomplishment and bring about a certain mental clarity. Use this time indoors to do some manageable tasks that give you purpose. Maybe closets need to be cleaned out, or leaky faucet needs repair? Be aware of the signs of winter doldrums and take action to care for yourself and others. Reaching out and helping others can be one of the most rewarding ways to get through the winter.

Sources for this article include WedMD, Harvard Health Publishing,
Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, National Institute of Mental
Health, Decataur County Memorial Hospital and ValuePenguin.