June 22, 2018
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Surviving those short, dark days of a Maine winter

Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
In this two-minute exposure, the rising moon illuminates clouds sweeping across the evening sky over St. Martin's In The Field, an Episcopal summer chapel, in Biddeford Pool. With the approach winter solstice, Maine receives only about nine hours of daylight.
By Julia Bayly, BDN Staff

There’s a real reason folks in northern latitudes may feel like hibernating these days.

Short days, lack of sunlight and cold weather are proven to have negative physical and emotional effects on some people.

“Exposure to sunlight is super important because it helps release serotonin in our brain, a neurochemical associated with healthy moods,” Shawna Traugh, LCSW with the Aroostook Mental Health Center said. “Regular sleep, appetite, your memory, learning and energy are all affected by serotonin levels [and] without sunlight those levels can dip too low and you are at risk for SAD.”

SAD, which stands for seasonal affectiveness disorder, is treated by medical doctors and therapists as a real and potentially life-threatening condition.

[Winter blahs or seasonal affective disorder? Ways to boost your mood this season]

According to the online site American Family Physician, roughly 4 to 6 percent of the population suffers from SAD, also known as “winter depression.”

Four times more common in women than in men, it often does not appear until a person is in their 20s and its impact does decrease with age, according to Dr. Amy Movius at Eastern Maine Medical Center, who adds the chances of being hit with SAD increase the farther north a person lives.

“In Maine we are at risk because we have such short days,” Movius said.

Symptoms include changes in appetite with cravings for sweet and starchy foods, weight gain, a “heaviness” in the arms and legs, reduced energy levels, fatigue, a tendency to oversleep, difficulty concentrating, irritability, increased sensitivity to social rejection and a tendency to avoid going out at all.

[Seasonal depression: A modern ill with ancient roots]

In December, southern Maine averages just under nine hours of daylight. That number is halved when the average amount of cloud cover for the month is factored in.

Farther to the north, average December daylight in Caribou is 8½ hours.

As the winter solstice approaches on Dec. 21, the shortest day of the year, Portland will get eight hours and 44 minutes of daylight while Caribou will have sunlight for eight hours and 19 minutes.

[Light therapy can help those with seasonal affective disorder]

“It can be dangerous,” Movisu said. “It’s like any form of depression but in this case people notice it seasonally when they feel down, lose interest in things, do not sleep well, their heads are all foggy and there can even be thoughts of suicide or self harm.”

So what’s a northerner to do?

“I am a huge believer in self care,” Movius said. “Practice good nutrition with a good diet and try to get exercise and expose yourself to sunlight as much as you can.”

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is important, she said, as one of the dangers with SAD is a tendency to binge eat, reduce activity and stay inside avoiding human contact.

“Diet, good sleep habits and exercise don’t sound sexy, but the way they affect our general health is huge,” Movius said. “If there was a pill out there that helped as much as 30 minutes of exercise, it would be a wonder drug.”

Traugh agrees.

“I swear by self-care,” Traugh said. “I know it helps my mood when I eat well. Try to outside for even short bits of time and go for walks – we all know it gets cold in Maine during the winter, but get out as much as your body will tolerate it.”

Some doctors or therapists will suggest the daily use of a specialized “light box” that simulates sunlight.

Using so-called “light therapy,” an individual sits in front of a specialized light box for about 30-minutes per day during the late fall and all winter. The best kind of light to use can be recommended by a therapist or doctor, Traugh said.

Adding vitamin D, normally absorbed by the body from sunlight, via supplements can also help battle SAD.

“I’m huge fan of vitamin D, it’s one of my favorite supplements,” Movius said. “At this latitude we are all vitamin D deficient even if you do get outside because of that lack of sunlight [and] everyone in my family gets nagged daily to take their vitamin D.”

Traugh and Movius stress if a person suspects they may be suffering from SAD, consult with a medical or mental health provider. Don’t try treating the symptoms on their own.

“Always consult with your medical provider,” Traugh said. “If you are feeling a bit more sluggish this time of year and you are having a hard time connecting the dots, feeling sad or gloomy it’s a good idea to assess where you are [and] please don’t just ‘suck it up.’”

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