Jill Cowart is no stranger to military moves. Married to a senior-level military officer, she and her family have made several major PCS moves across the States, including to Texas, Washington, D.C. and Hawaii. So moving to Germany — stationed in the Kaiserslautern Military Community — was actually seen as an exciting adventure.
The winter blues
What Cowart wasn’t ready for was how she was physically affected by the difference in Germany’s weather from the sunnier climates of Texas and Hawaii. The winter days provide very short hours of sunlight with wet, foggy and cloudy conditions. And, although the spring and summer days can be long, they too can be just as foggy and cloudy, leaving few days of sunshine.
“You know, I don’t mind a few cloudy days. I actually enjoy it,” says Cowart. “But when they happened weeks at a time, it just started to affect me negatively.”
At first she was always tired and wanted to take a lot of naps during the day. “It felt so odd. Well, because I’ve never been a ‘napper,’” she adds with a laugh.
She also realized that her mood was affecting her socially. “I just didn’t feel like going out to lunch with friends, or going to the gym — even though I know that both are good for me. When I wanted to stay at home more often and take a nap instead of meeting friends and being social, I knew something was wrong.” Cowart was feeling the effect of the “winter blues,“ which is considered a milder form of the more severe mood disorder called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.
According to Mental Health America (MHA), a leading organization providing advocacy and awareness on mental health issues, symptoms of SAD include depression, lethargy, overeating, anxiety and sleep problems. MHA also states that half a million people in the U.S. are affected by SAD from September to April each year, and the severity peaks from December through February. In Germany and other parts of Europe such as the U.K. and Ireland, where the gray days extend to other parts of the year, an even higher percentage of the population is affected with both SAD and the winter blues. The severity of the disorder depends on how well an individual can cope with the symptoms and his or her geographical location.
Hormones and your internal body clock
The body’s “circadian rhythm” — or the body’s internal clock — utilizes cues from light and dark to help regulate hormones such as serotonin and melatonin which control sleeping and waking patterns, energy, appetite, digestion and mood. The lack of sunlight promotes the production of melatonin, a sleep-aid hormone. Serotonin production, triggered by sunlight, helps to inhibit the production of melatonin, and stimulates the senses into feeling awake and energetic. When your internal clock falls out of rhythm, these hormones become deregulated and you may suffer from symptoms associated with SAD. People who travel frequently and experience “jet lag,” as well as workers who constantly rotate their schedules from day to night shifts, may also suffer from SAD symptoms.
There are ways to help boost serotonin levels when external conditions inhibit exposure to natural sunlight. Light therapy, exercise and eating a healthier diet of complex carbohydrates and lean proteins have been shown to help.
Cowart was fortunate that two of her friends had been previously stationed in Germany and knew the signs of the winter blues. “One of my friends asked me if I had bought a sun lamp yet. I was confused and said no, that I didn’t want a tanning lamp. But the ‘happy lamp’ she was referring to was different. She sent me a link to one I could buy online, and I found one that was a portable travel lamp, around $70, and dual voltage. It’s been great.”
This “happy lamp” Cowart has is actually called a full-spectrum light therapy box. These can be found online through a number of retail resources, such as Amazon and Walmart. They range in price from $50 to $200, depending on their size and features. According to the Center for Environmental Therapeutics, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that provides access and information for environmental therapies, such as those for SAD, the light therapy box should provide the clinically tested 10,000 lux of light (which is closest to the effect of true sunlight), be set where the light is approximately 12 inches from the face and be used each morning in short therapy sessions of 90 minutes or less, depending on individual needs and power of the light source. Because the light affects sleep, using light therapy boxes earlier in the day will help you avoid a disruption in sleep patterns at night.
The Health and Wellness Center (HAWC) at Ramstein Air Base provides a full-spectrum light therapy box in a relaxation room, free for use to ID holders on a walk-in basis during business hours. Check with other wellness and fitness centers at your local installations, and ask if they too offer access to a full-spectrum light box.
Exercise also helps combat SAD by boosting both serotonin and dopamine hormones, which act as mood stabilizers. For the best results, try to get a minimum of three hours of exercise a week — or around 30 minutes of exercise a day.
Maintaining a healthy diet of lean protein and fewer simple carbs can also stabilize insulin levels in the body and sustain energy for longer periods of time. A vitamin D supplement may also be needed because the lack of sunlight can lead to a vitamin D deficiency.
Cowart says that the change in her exercise routine and eating habits have been the most beneficial in elevating her moods.
“At first I was using the lightbox every day. Then when I started to feel a difference in my energy, I got back into a regular exercise routine. I also discovered a ‘clean eating’ nutritional plan, eliminating sugars and empty carbs like white flour. I still use my light about three times a week. But I truly believe that exercise and healthy eating were the keys to keeping my mood stabilized. I feel more active and healthier than ever before.”
Not all individuals can fully relieve their symptoms of SAD through light therapy, diet and exercise. Sometimes medical intervention is in order. If you are suffering from feelings of depression, anxiety or sleep problems, please consult your physician for further care instructions. Your healthcare provider can help you achieve a healthier and brighter winter mood.