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Battling the “Winter Blues”

Anyone who has endured a Pittsburgh winter knows that the season can be brutal. Icy sheets of slushy snow cover the ground and the sub-zero temperatures are bad enough without the harsh winds that cut through and chill to the core. But it’s not just the cold that makes Pittsburgh winters so unbearable–it’s also the sunshine, or rather, lack thereof.

In the winter months, December through February, Pittsburgh News Wire reports that the city only averages three sunny days per month, meaning that through the whole winter, we only see the sun for a little over a week’s worth of time. But of course, winter is rarely contained by that three month span, and the gloomy weather carries into the months beyond February as well. Throughout the entire year, only 20% of the days, on average, are sunny.

This may not seem like a big deal as long as you’re not going for the tan, sun-kissed look. However, sunlight plays a major role in your health–both physical and mental.

Ultraviolet sun rays contain Vitamin D, which has a variety of positive effects on your body, such as bone strengthening and the possible prevention of some types of cancers. Studies have also shown that exposure to sunlight helps you sleep better and maintain a normal circadian rhythm.

More noticeably, however, sunlight can directly and, in some cases, severely affect your mood. While many people experience feelings of apathy, gloominess, or fatigue associated with the winter months, there is a wide range of severity for these negative feelings. On the lesser end is what people tend to call having the “winter blues”, while the higher end is called Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is a subset of clinical depression that occurs during the winter months and is the result of limited exposure to light, which causes lowered levels of serotonin and increased levels of melatonin. Serotonin is the hormone associated with positive moods and feeling awake while melatonin is the hormone associated with sleep. It makes sense then, that symptoms of SAD include depression, lower energy levels, and difficulty staying awake in addition to several others, such as overeating, boredom, and irritability.

At this time and place in our lives, we are most susceptible to SAD because of Pittsburgh’s very limited sunlight hours, but also because two of the groups most commonly identified with SAD are women and young adults. In a college setting where stress is already a common experience from a heavy workload, it is extremely important to the state of our mental well-being for us to identify outside sources of depression.

Unfortunately, the best treatment for SAD is natural sunlight, which is certainly in short stock in Pittsburgh during the winter. However, there are a few other remedies and methods of dealing with your winter blues that don’t require migrating south for the winter.

The first thing that you can do is pay attention to your diet and nutrition. Because Vitamin D is something that you will be missing in the months with limited sunlight, increasing your intake of this vitamin in other sources such as fish oils and milk has been shown to reduce the severity of depression associated with SAD.

Eating the right kinds of carbohydrates can also help relieve SAD symptoms. In moderation, foods with more complex carbs like brown rice or lentils promote the production of the serotonin that you miss out on with limited light exposure. But be careful, because the wrong kinds of carbs can do more harm than good. According to Dr. Jaelline Jaffe, Ph.D., compared to men, women are more likely to deal with depression by eating, so during the winter, you may be tempted to indulge in sweets and the comfort of simple carbohydrates. These simple carbs trigger a spike in insulin in the body, resulting in an eventual “sugar crash”, which will only add to the feelings of fatigue that are associated with SAD.

One of the best ways to combat almost all of your winter blues symptoms is exercise. Between the cold and the almost constant drizzle of snow, rain, and sleet, it’s so tempting to stay curled up on the couch with a good book or your Netflix account. However, studies have proven that just one hour of aerobic exercise outdoors has the same health benefits as 2.5 hours of light treatment, even if it’s a cloudy day. If the weather is too cold and/or wet though, you can work out indoors too! Use a treadmill or a stationary bike, go for a swim in a heated indoor pool, or just do a quick yoga workout in your dorm room. Exercise in general has been shown to relieve stress, boost your mood, and improve your focus, in addition to the more obvious benefits that it has on your physical health.

It is important to note, however, that Seasonal Affective Disorder can be a very serious issue. If you feel that these remedies are not helping or that symptoms of SAD are having a severe or harmful impact on your life, you should seek further professional guidance. Carnegie Mellon offers Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) to address any mental health issues through its many services. These services are provided at no cost, and appointments can be made by calling 412-268-2922.

Whatever it is that gets you through the doom and gloom of Pittsburgh winters, keep on sloshing through, because summer (and all of its healthy, beautiful sunshine) will be here before you know it.

Carly is currently a junior majoring in Technical Writing at Carnegie Mellon. She is a Midshipman in Naval ROTC, an athlete on the Track & Field team, and a Career Peer Mentor at the Career Center. In her seldom moments of down-time or frequent moments of procrastination, she can be found writing, daydreaming, watching Disney movies, or working out (or at least attempting to). She lives in Pittsburgh during the school year, but calls Maryland her home.
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