Survive the short, dark days of a Maine winter

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This story was originally published in December 2017.

There’s a real reason people in northern latitudes may want to hibernate these days.

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

“Sun exposure is very important because it helps release serotonin in our brains, a neurochemical associated with healthy mood,” said Shawna Traugh, LCSW of the Aroostook Mental Health Center. “Regular sleep, appetite, memory, learning and energy are all affected by serotonin levels. [and] without sunlight, these levels can drop too low and you are at risk for SAD. “

SAD, which stands for Seasonal Affective Disorder, is treated by doctors and therapists as a real and potentially fatal illness.

According to the American Family Physician online site, about 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 twenties and its impact decreases with age, according to Dr. Amy Movius of Eastern Maine Medical Center, who adds the odds. to be hit with SAD increase the north the longer a person lives.

“In Maine, we are in danger because we have such short days,” Movius said.

Symptoms include changes in appetite with cravings for sweets and starches, weight gain, “heaviness” in the arms and legs, reduced energy levels, fatigue, a tendency to sleep too much, difficulty concentrating, irritability, increased sensitivity to social rejection and a tendency to avoid dating at all.

In December, southern Maine experiences on average just under nine hours of daylight. This number is halved when the average amount of cloud cover for the month is taken into account.

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

As the winter solstice approaches, December 21, the shortest day of the year, Portland will benefit from eight hours and 44 minutes of daylight while Caribou will benefit from sunlight for eight and 19 hours. minutes.

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

So what does a northerner have to do?

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

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is important, she said, because one of the dangers of SAD is the tendency to overeat, cut down on activities, and stay indoors avoiding contact. human.

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

Trough agrees.

“I swear by personal care,” Traugh said. “I know it improves my mood when I eat well. Try to get out even for short periods and take a walk – we all know it gets cold in Maine during the winter, but get out as much as your body will tolerate.

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

Using what is called “light therapy,” a person sits in front of a specialized light box for about 30 minutes a day in late fall and all winter. The best type of light to use can be recommended by a therapist or doctor, Traugh said.

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

“I’m a huge fan of vitamin D, it’s one of my favorite supplements,” Movius said. “At this latitude, we are all deficient in vitamin D, even if you go outside because of the lack of sunlight. [and] all of my family members are bullied on a daily basis to take their vitamin D.

Traugh and Movius point out that if a person suspects they have SAD, see a doctor or mental health care provider. Do not try to treat the symptoms on their own.

“Always consult your health care provider,” Traugh said. “If you’re feeling a little slower around this time of year and having trouble making the connection, feeling sad or gloomy, it’s a good idea to assess where you are at. [and] please don’t just “suck it”.


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