Lightening the Winter Blues
Don’t let Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) get you down.
Thanks to a career in magazine publishing, Tom Sklerov has never enjoyed much job security, especially when the 42-year-old editor was starting his career. Like a lot of New York-based editors, he’s had periods when he was either an independent contractor, a consultant or a freelancer.
“Those are politely euphemistic ways of saying I was unemployed and at home eating snacks and watching Oprah,” he jokes.
While the job hunt is never an uplifting experience, Tom remembers being more angst-ridden than usual about being out of work during the winter. “February was the cruelest month,” he recalls. On the east coast, February can tease you with a thaw and offer the smells of spring before tormenting you with a half-foot of snow. “It was especially depressing in those early years when I lived in a small apartment that offered little sunlight and made me feel like a hibernating bear,” Tom says.
Then Tom read a story about millions of Americans who suffered from the malady with the appropriate acronym of SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder. “While I was gorging on winter comfort food,” he says, “it was a bit comforting to know my depression was an affliction and that I wasn’t alone.”
Even though studies said SAD affected four times more women than men, Tom Sklerov possessed all the symptoms of a SAD person. He says that his mild depression would reoccur every winter, even when he was gainfully employed. “I could be moody and feel fatigued during midday, and I craved sweets and high-carbohydrate foods.” For Tom, it was a sad state of affairs.
From the time it was first identified in 1984, researchers have found it difficult nailing down the exact causes of SAD. Some experts think it might represent a disturbance in the body’s biological clock (yes, even men have those) due to changes in the levels of the brain hormones melatonin and serotonin. Lack of sunlight during those long dark days of winter can increase the secretion of melatonin, and cause a corresponding rise in our stress hormone cortisol. This causes a reduction in serotonin (known as “the molecule of emotion”), which is important for managing mood. “When I was dealing with SAD,” Tom recalls, “my mood was about as manageable as a job search.”
The most frequently cited treatment for chasing the winter blues away is bright light therapy, which is intended to suppress the brain’s secretion of melatonin. The device most often used today is a bank of white fluorescent lights on a metal reflector and shield with a plastic screen. Over the years, the results from exposure to light boxes have been positive.
“The closest I came to using such therapy was when my daughter and I played with her ‘Lite Brite’ set,” Tom jokes. But he decided to go the low-budget route and spent more time outside in the sunshine, stretching and running in the brisk outdoor air to work off that winter holiday weight.
Studies have proven that even a little physical activity can elevate serotonin levels and diminish feelings of anxiety and depression.
Of course, exercising alone won’t enhance your mood unless you also follow a nutritious diet. To be a SAD makeover success, you have to trade in sweets for salads, replace fries with fish and add a multivitamin.
Has Tom been able to stave off the feelings of SADness? “Well, you’re talking to me in January and my mood couldn’t be better,” he says. “But, just in case, ask me again next winter.”