While winter can be a season of mirth and merriment it can also be bitterly cold—and dark. For some, it means spending much of the winter season indoors and that can cause a whole host of health issues.
Many people, especially those living in northern climates, are negatively affected by the lack of natural light that occurs during winter. As the days shorten, the body releases the hormone melatonin earlier on in the day. Controlled by the light-sensitive pineal gland, melatonin is responsible for causing the body to fall asleep. Light inhibits the secretion of melatonin, which is released when it begins to get dark outside. As night comes on early in winter, so does the melatonin, leaving many fatigued well before they are ready for bed.
In addition to this interruption to the standard sleep cycle, spending less time outdoors means less vitamin D intake. As one of the 24 micronutrients that are crucial for survival, vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium and supports bone growth. This is a particular problem for Canadians as the winter sunlight of northern latitudes does not provide the proper amount of vitamin D from October to April. Only sunlight that rates higher than “three” on a UV index will provide enough vitamin D for absorption.
Another common wintertime condition is Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, which influences up to 3% of Canadians at some point in their life. A milder form can affect up to 15%. It generally begins in the autumn and continues on through the winter season. A type of depression, SAD is more than simply referred to as the “winter blues.” It has a whole host of symptoms characterized by feelings of hopelessness, fatigue, restless sleep, weight gain, tension and decreased libido. SAD can take a serious toll on a person’s physical and mental wellbeing and has been shown to affect many more women than men.
Luckily, relief from these wintertime ailments is in sight. Light therapy, for example, has been shown to help alleviate symptoms of SAD. This can be achieved by using one of several types of devices such as light boxes: Low-UV lights designed to mimic the natural light of outdoors; and dawn simulators, lights that gradually brighten throughout the morning to replicate sunrise.
A melatonin supplement can also assist with the sleep difficulties associated with winter. It is generally taken 30 minutes to one hour before going to bed and should decrease the overall time it takes to fall asleep.
Certain foods containing higher concentrations of vitamin D can help offset the lack of sun exposure. These include salmon, tuna and milk. You’ll often also find a boost added to commercial orange juices and soy beverages.
For those afflicted with SAD, speaking with a qualified therapist can be a great benefit in boosting mental wellbeing. Through discussion, sufferers may be able to put negative thoughts into perspective. Be sure to speak with a physician if you suspect you have SAD before taking any supplements or beginning any form of light therapy.
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