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Beating the Winter Blues
Helpful Hints for the Season and Beyond

by Lynne Spevack, LCSW

Managing diabetes can be tough in any season. As winter approaches, though, some people with diabetes find that staying on top of a management routine — and everything else — gets even harder. Do any of these scenarios sound familiar to you?

• Your physical and mental energy wanes. Your exercise regimen disintegrates. Procrastination takes hold, and you leave chores uncompleted. Meal planning and preparation feels overwhelming, leading you to cut corners. Despite sleeping longer hours, you wake up feeling unrefreshed; caffeine provides a pick-me-up but later backfires by causing insomnia, leaving you feeling even more tired the next day.

• Cravings for sweets, chocolates, and starches intensify, making it doubly difficult to maintain a healthy diet.

• Your thought processes turn sluggish; normally manageable mental tasks, such as counting carbohydrates, remembering appointments, or balancing your checkbook, feel challenging, even overwhelming.

• Generally pleasurable activities such as hobbies and sex no longer bring enjoyment.

• Your participation in social activities plummets, and you lose the camaraderie and encouragement of friends.

If these situations ring a bell, you’re not alone! One-third of Americans report experiencing a wintertime slump. Living farther from the equator — in New England or Canada, as opposed to Florida or Texas — increases the odds that you will contend with the winter blues. Furthermore, 6% of the US population experiences more prominent and troublesome symptoms that clinicians call seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. (”Affective” refers to mood, just one of the domains that SAD can impact.) While SAD sufferers should obtain professional guidance to treat it, those experiencing the winter blues can often feel better by employing some home remedies.

How the blues begins
While more people experience a low mood in the winter months than at other times of the year, it may be surprising to learn that the “winter blues” is not exclusively a wintertime phenomenon. Symptoms can, in fact, start as early as late summer and may not let up until late spring. (Summertime SAD, on the other hand, can be thought of as the opposite of the winter blues and is characterized by symptoms such as irritability, agitation, insomnia, and suppressed appetite. A person could have both winter and summer SAD, or the lesser “blues” version of each.)

While some people who get the winter blues may complain bitterly about the cold, and others might blame their doldrums on the demands of the holidays, rigorous scientific research has established that changes in light — the shorter days, reduced intensity of sunlight, and later dawns of winter — are the main cause of the winter blues. (That being said, you may also feel bothered by the cold weather and holiday season obligations.)

Many bodily processes rely at least in part on cues from visual light. Most obviously, daylight alerts us to awaken, and nighttime darkness readies us for sleep. Other bodily processes and functions — gastrointestinal, hormonal, etc. — wax and wane throughout the day, each according to its own “clock.” To function properly, each of these internal clocks must be coordinated with the others, and all of them must be coordinated with nature’s daily clock: daytime and nighttime. Inadequate or ill-timed light exposure disrupts these normal rhythms, negatively affecting mood, energy, appetite, and mental performance.

Anything that reduces or disrupts our exposure to sufficient and properly timed light and darkness can cause the “blues,” season notwithstanding. Jet lag and night shift work can wreak havoc on our body clocks. Weather patterns — a midsummer string of overcast days or a wintertime snowfall that reflects and intensifies sunlight — can induce a dreary or a cheerful mood. Some types of cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, and other eye diseases can interfere with the transmission of the light signal to the brain, which may cause a year-round winter blues–type phenomenon. (There’s some indication that in some cases cataract surgery may reverse the problem.)

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