Springtime SAD

When termination dust first paints the peaks surrounding Anchorage, there is a twinge of dread that subtly tugs at many shirtsleeves. It is the bitter twangs of the onset of winter; the season that delivers a multitude of delightful outdoor activities, but also the long waxing of darkness.
For many Anchorage residents, this is the trademark of Seasonal Affective Disorder, commonly called winter depression. It seems counterintuitive, but the peak of depression occurs most often in the spring. When the sun finally comes out to shine, many who have survived winter get SAD.
According to the UPD’s posted Calls for Service, the majority of suicide attempts occur as the sun begins to wax longer, from January to April.
Doctor of naturopathic medicine, Torrey Smith at Avante Medical Center in Anchorage, said there are a few components to this phenomenon.
“Just when you think they should be getting better, they’re crashing,” Smith said of people affected with SAD. “It’s almost like the sun comes out and we think we should be feeling better, and it’s a shift. suddenly we’ve got more light and it is a bizarre thing that happens.”
Smith likened it to going on vacation. “You’ll hang in there, pull it all together just so you can get out of town and go on vacation, and then immediately get sick when you get there – the opposite way you think you should be feeling.”
What also contributes to the crash, said Smith, has a lot to do with what is ingested, or as is the case for many, not ingested. Vitamin D, B12 and iron are common deficiencies among Alaskans in the wintertime, and they’re the vitamins that have a lot of sway over moods.
“For instance, when there’s low iron, there’s an inability to do math,” Smith said. “They could be smart in every other department, but they’re doing poorly in math. That alone can lead to depression.”
Smith said when he measures patients’ Vitamin D levels this time of year, they tend to be at their lowest levels. He said Alaskans should get their Vitamin D from the source natural to the indigenous people of the area: red salmon. Sockeye salmon and wild Alaska salmon are much higher in Vitamin D than farm raised, he said, because of what they are fed. He said it would behoove students to get vitamin D testing and a monthly B12 shot at the health fairs, the campus health center or any other center that offers them.
Not just vitamins, but fatigue is also a factor that affects moods, Smith said, that is brought on not only by low vitamin levels, but lifestyle.
“Students often go into a sleep deprived mode as they juggle work and school,” Smith said. “And when other things are also not right, they get extreme fatigue that lends itself to depression and suicide.”
Mike Chriss, the assistant professor in the Health, Physical Education and Recreation department at UAA, said being able to keep positive and happy all winter has a lot to do with addressing the entire mind, body and spirit.
“I always go back to what my mom always told us: ‘Be active, get sleep, eat well, get sleep, get clean air and sunshine,'” Chriss said. “And if we don’t have those things, we’ve got to counteract act that – the drudgeries of winter. It’s slowing us down psychologically, even hormonally, and the idea is to stay active.”
Chriss said the real challenge is getting active once the depression of winter starts to set in. It’s hard to find the motivation to get up and exercise the body when the mind is in a state of lethargy.
“Make sure you have people: family, friends, partners, workout partners or people to check in with you to make sure you’re alright during the darkness part of winter.”
The key is to establish a routine and a support base prior to the onset of winter. That way, once the cold and dark settle in, the support base and the regiment are part of the daily existence.
With work and school, howeve, setting healthy patterns prior to winter and maintaining them throughout is not an easy achievement.
“If you’re feeling really depressed, just going out and getting a good hard bike ride for 15-20 minutes has been shown to have benefits,” Chriss said. Sometimes even 15 minutes on a bike may seem daunting to someone who is depressed, in which case a walk around the block will at least benefit emotions and mental state of mind.
Exercise has been proven to help with anxiety, self-esteem and cognitive functions.
“The real key is focusing on that wellness formula,” Chriss said. “Body, mind and spirit. It’s really inclusive. It’s not just exercise. There’s a lot of really fit sick people running around versus those who might not be as fit, but they’re actually much more well as a whole being.”