Health and Wellness

Fighting the ‘winter blues’

Lyle Torguson, M.D.

The holidays can be a time of joy, laughter and family togetherness. It is also the time of year when primary care providers see an increase in patients who are feeling ”down in the dumps.” In addition to the stressors that come with the holidays, some people are sensitive to the lack of sunlight during the winter months. This can cause long depressive episodes – but despite the short daylight hours in Lane County this time of year, there are multiple solutions that can boost energy and reduce feelings of mental and physical weakness.
The gloomy days in the Pacific Northwest can be notorious for the ”winter blues” as they can cause a reduction in serotonin production, normally stimulated by sunlight and responsible for both wakefulness and, more importantly, happiness.
Most individuals are not affected by this seasonal change in sunshine, but it is estimated that up to 10 percent of the population is prone to Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. Symptoms of SAD start in late fall and generally clear up in mid-spring with the increase of sunshine. Characteristics include fatigue, irritability, lack of ambition, loss of interest, overeating carbohydrates and generally feeling down.
Seasonal depression can negatively impact an individual’s life. Often, healthcare providers will prescribe a mild antidepressant to boost serotonin in affected patients for the fall and winter months.
There are also natural remedies to help combat these winter blues. While the most preferred treatment for this condition is spending time in the sunshine, an efficient alternative is to expose the face and eyes to bright white or blue light. This spectrum of light stimulates serotonin production. Lights designed specifically to reverse the symptoms of SAD are readily available online or at the drugstore.
To get the most benefit from these lights you must be within two feet of the light source for at least an hour a day, occasionally looking directly into the light. I recommend using these types of SAD lights during the day, but never the evening because you may have trouble falling asleep.
Lack of vitamin D can also be a factor in causing SAD, especially since our best source is from sunshine. I recommend taking 2,000 to 5,000 IUs of vitamin D3 daily during the winter months. However, since vitamin D3 is fat-soluble, it needs to be taken with food that contains fat in order to be absorbed.
SAD is a serious condition that impacts one in 10 people and influences personal, professional and social lives during the cold, dark months. If you think you might be suffering from SAD, visit your healthcare provider to explore the treatment plan that will work best for you. Other natural ”blues fighters” are exercise and avoiding the simple carbohydrates that you often get at holiday parties.

Dr. Lyle Torguson works at Nova Health as the primary care medical director. Dr. Torguson specializes in family medicine/psychiatry, bringing a holistic approach to treating the whole person and helping families navigate the health field. He earned his medical degree from the University of Minnesota School of Medicine and completed his residency at the University of Minnesota Family Practice Affiliated Program at Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park, MN. Dr. Torguson can be reached at his office in the Nova Health clinic in Pleasant Hill.