That Northwest winter funk

Did you have to drag yourself out of bed this morning? Are you feeling tired and irritable lately, having trouble getting a good night's sleep? Feeling depressed and storing way too much fat?

Our annual Seattle winter epidemic is heavily upon us. In other parts of the country, people say they suffer from "cabin fever," which comes from being stuck inside for days on end because of snow and ice. And it's not at all the same as the phenomenon we Northwesterners must endure.

According to the U.S. Weather Service, Seattle has 240 completely overcast days a year and just 68 sunny ones. We're on the same latitude as foggy old England. In wintertime, for both us and the Brits, the sun gets up around 8 a.m. and goes to bed as early as 4:30 p.m. - making for shorter days than for those in lower latitudes.

No wonder we're grumpy.

There's a genuine, medical name for the Winter blues: Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), sometimes called phototropic depression. No doubt the latter term refers to feelings of depression for those of us who can't spend the winter in the tropics basking in the sun.

We can joke about it, but SAD is very real and in some cases debilitating, even causing missed workdays. Those who are prone to suffer from this disorder usually also have a weakened immune system during winter months and are more vulnerable to infections, flu and other maladies.

What it is

SAD has been observed by health professionals for more than 150 years, but it wasn't officially named until the early 1980s. As seasons change, there is a shift in our biological clocks, or "circadian rhythms," due partly to the changes in sunlight patterns. This can cause our bodies' biological clocks to be out of rhythm with our daily schedules.

Melatonin, a sleep-related hormone in the brain, is thought to be the culprit. In the shorter, darker days of winter our brains secrete more of this hormone, which can cause or exacerbate feelings of depression and listlessness. Younger people and women seem to be more prone to this energy-sapping state. Clearly a good excuse for more chocolate, at least! But there are some other things you can do for your miserable self besides giving in to winter urges to binge on sweets and carbohydrates.

How to feel better

* Get light! Bright light therapy (phototherapy) helps suppress the secretion of melatonin, and many people respond to this treatment. You can buy a special "full spectrum" light, one that most closely imitates natural light; it comes in a variety of forms, from floor lamps to doormat-sized light boxes. Find them at places like Sharper Image and also online for anywhere from $150 to $400. Spend at least a half an hour each day close to the light - a good time to read or just close your eyes and relax to some good music.

* Spend time outdoors each day in the natural light (whenever you can find it). Get some exercise while you're out there. Studies have shown that an hour's walk in winter sunlight is as good as two and a half hours by the light box.

* Get more light into your home or workplace. Pull back the curtains; raise the shades; use more and brighter lights. Walk someplace for lunch rather than brown-bagging it in the same old stale office air.

* Throw a tropical party complete with sunlamps, beachwear and tropical drinks with little umbrellas in them.

Dance, act silly and laugh as much as possible!

If these things don't help, don't wait to talk to your doctor or mental-health professional. You may be someone who can get relief

only with a naturopathic or prescription remedy.

SAD symptoms - unlike those of clinical depression - disappear in the spring. For some, recovery is almost instantaneous. One day you wake up suddenly feeling perkier - energized, in fact. This reawakened zest can last several weeks, motivating you to get back out on the jogging trail or to take on otherwise daunting projects like painting closets or cleaning the basement. For others the physical and psychic renewal happens more gradually, depending on the intensity of the sun

when it finally shows up.

You can still feel tired and lazy for a while, and still have trouble getting a good night's sleep, but most people get over feeling "down" unless there's another reason for depression.

Think of it this way: these gloomy days are the dues we pay for living in the great, gorgeous Northwest. Take heart. The rhodies and azaleas are just weeks away from blooming.

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