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To Your Health: Change of season, change of mood

River Martin is the manager of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Maine help line. The help line assists Maine residents in finding the resources they need to maintain their mental health. This month, as we approach the darkest months of the year, he and his team will field an increasing number of calls related to seasonal affective disorder, now called major depressive disorder with seasonal patterns.

Winter time can bring on changes in mood. Image courtesy Downeast Magazine.

“The disorder comes on with the change of seasons and has similar symptoms to depression,” Martin explained. “But there isn’t as much statistical data on it because it is chronically under-reported. People think they’re just having the winter blues.

The seasonal bout of depression typically occurs in most people at the same time every year, when the days grow shorter and the nights longer. The symptoms of the disorder may include feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day; losing interest in once-enjoyable activities; low energy; trouble sleeping; difficulty concentrating; feeling hopeless or worthless; changes in appetite; and frequent thoughts of death or suicide. The disorder is found more frequently among people living at more northerly latitudes, where the strength and duration of sunlight in the fall and winter is much less than toward the equator. “Your geographic location matters,” Martin explained. “Even if you work outside most of the day, your serotonin and melatonin levels will experience changes.”

Serotonin, which affects mood, and melatonin, which affects sleep patterns among other things, are two neurotransmitters created in the brain that help maintain the body’s daily rhythms. In people with seasonal affective disorder, a reduction in sunlight affects the levels of the two chemicals. These individuals suffer clear sleep, mood, and behavior changes, according to the National Institute of Mental Health Institute (NIMH).

Deficits in vitamin D may be related to these effects because vitamin D is believed to promote serotonin activity. The body naturally produces vitamin D when exposed to sunlight on the skin. With less daylight in the winter people may have lower vitamin D levels, which may further drop serotonin levels, according to NIMH.

“To know if you have means paying attention to your mental health, noticing if you are sleeping or eating more than usual,” Martin said. For those who work hard outdoors, as lobstermen do during the fishing season, the period after taking in their traps can be particularly difficult. “There’s a big change in the workload, combined with the seasonal change. It can be hard when the routine changes, when you are not working as hard,” he said.

One relatively simple way to counter the effects of the seasonal disorder is to get more direct sunlight via light therapy. Light therapy involves a very bright light box (10,000 lux) in front of which an individual sits for about 30 to 45 minutes every day, usually first thing in the morning. The light box filters out the potentially damaging UV light, making it safe for most people. “Light therapy is a great treatment method,” Martin said. “It boosts serotonin, melatonin and Vitamin D levels all at once. And talk therapy is great as well.”

Major depressive disorder with seasonal patterns is a real health condition, just as diabetes or high blood pressure are real physical conditions, Martin emphasizes. “Everyone has mental health, whether they have a disorder or not. It is something to pay attention to. We all know that a Maine winter is hard.”

 

Where to seek help

The Maine Statewide Crisis Hotline 1-888-568-1112 Call this 24/7 line to speak with a trained crisis clinician if you are concerned about yourself or someone else. Intentional Peer Support Warmline 1-866-771-9276 Call this 24/7 peer support line to speak with a trained peer support specialist who has life experience with mental health and/or substance use recovery. NAMI Maine Helpline 1-800-464-5767, Option 1 The NAMI Maine Helpline provides support, education, and advocacy for anyone with questions about mental health concerns. Man Therapy, www.mantherapy.org This is not a helpline, but it is a great resource for men who may be hesitant to talk about mental health.

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