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Beating Winter's Woes

If your mood is as cold and dark as your landscape, you're in good company. But here's how you can ease that seasonal slump.
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WebMD Feature

Now that the Christmas tree is composting and radio stations have shelved that cheery holiday music until next winter, let's get real with some rewriting: 'Tis the season to be melancholy.

You know the feeling: You're more tired these days, maybe anxious or moody. Cocooning with some leftover Christmas cookies or other sweet and high-carb fare sounds better than hanging with the crowd. Your sexual appetite may be on a diet, or even fasting. It's harder to get out of bed, and when you do, your mood resembles the landscape you see -- cold, dark, and nasty.

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That's the problem: The gloom caused by Mother Nature each winter in much of the country is biologically felt to some degree by an estimated one in four of us -- usually starting around October and then magically ending by April with spring's thaw. For most people, it manifests as winter doldrums, the "I-can't-wait-for-winter-to-end" feeling that produce mild but manageable sluggishness and food cravings. But about 11 million Americans have a more severe form of winter depression -- seasonal affective disorder, the aptly acronymed SAD that is typically diagnosed after at least two consecutive years of more intense symptoms.

"While a person with winter doldrums may have difficulty waking up or getting out of bed at times, someone with seasonal affective disorder can't get to work on time," says Michael Terman, PhD, director of the Winter Depression Program at New York Psychiatric Institute and Columbia University Medical Center. "With the doldrums, it's in the norm to gain up to 5 or 6 pounds over the winter, but with full-blown SAD, weight gain can be far more than that."

Either way, it stems from the same cause: Sensitivity to the lack of sunlight that results from winter's "shorter" days and disrupts our circadian rhythm, or internal body clock. The degree of this sensitivity, and resulting winter depression severity, largely stems from some combination of other factors -- your geography, genetics, and individual brain chemistry.

With SAD, the lack of sunlight causes the brain to work overtime producing melatonin, the hormone that regulates your body clock and sleep patterns and a hormone that has been linked to depression. That's why all things considered, the farther north from the equator you live, the greater the risk you'll have some degree of winter depression. Only about 1% of Florida residents have some winter-specific discomfort or depression, compared to about half of those living in uppermost parts of the U.S. or in southern Canada.

"The body clock takes its cue from sunlight, especially that in the morning. But as you get up into the northern-tier states, there's a 4½ hour delay in sunrise in mid-winter versus the summer"; in the middle portion of the U.S., there's a two-hour difference," Terman tells WebMD. "This difference is enough to affect circadian rhythm timing and throw the body clock out of sync."

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