Friday, February 17, 2012


This winter has been one of the mildest I can remember.  The trees here in Toronto are so confused, I have seen some already sprouting buds.  There has been a notable absence of snow and the usual bitter cold temperatures.  Torontonians have been taking advantage of this by cycling and jogging like crazy through winter months that typically have harsh weather making these activities much more difficult.  Turns out they are definitely on the right track for staying healthy during the winter season.

Given our fortune (probably misfortune for the environment), it seems ridiculous to complain about the weather.  Yet inspite of the mild temperatures and lack of precipitation, I find myself nevertheless affected by the bleak, grayness of winter.

This is relatively new for me.  I have never been a fan of Toronto's hot, humid summers, but it is only a few years ago that the winters also started to bother me.  While the heat makes me crabby and agitated, the lack of sunshine in winter and the cold temperatures can easily suck me down into a vortex of negativity.

This response to winter weather is not uncommon.  Researchers estimate that 3% of people in temperate climates experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), characterized by regularly occurring depressions in winter with a remission the in spring or summer. Along with depressed mood, SAD is associated with increased appetite and an increased duration of sleep during the winter months, and is more prevalent in women.

It has been proposed that neurotransmitters are the biological mechanism responsible for SAD, in particular, a dysfunction in the serotonin system.  Circadian rhythm changes have also been implicated.
There is evidence that SAD can be treated using light therapy whereby individuals sit in front of a light box, exposed to 2000–10,000 lux for 30–120min daily during the winter. Other forms of therapy for SAD are exercise, anti-depressant medications, and cognitive-behavioural therapy.

Given that I already take an anti-depressant to control anxiety, and I exercise every day, I am thinking about trying light therapy.  Winter is also the only time of year that I will attend bikram (hot) yoga classes.  I discovered how therapeutic these classes can be last winter.  Doing a rigorous yoga practice in a room heated to 40C proved very effective in lifting my spirits on bitterly cold, grey days.

If you suffer from SAD, I encourage you to speak with your doctor about the most appropriate treatment for you, and if you are currently sedentary, discuss with him/her beginning an exercise program.  In contrast to light therapy, physical activity has numerous other physical and mental health benefits.

Other interesting health-related information to chew on:

A large-scale Canadian study found some worrisome trends among our nation's youth:  Between grades 6 and 10, low mood and regular periods of depression increase significantly, particularly among girls.  It also found that one third of youth in this age range who are a healthy weight believe they are too fat, and 25% of boys and 30% of girls wish they were someone else.  Less than one fifth of youth meet Canada's guidelines for physical activity, and half do not consume fruits and vegetables on a daily basis.

William Broad, an investigative reporter for The New York Times, has just published a book about yoga titled: The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards.  In it, he addresses many myths surrounding yoga such as it is a completely safe form of activity (you can injure yourself, potentially seriously, just like with most activities), it can help you lose weight (not much fat/calorie burning power), and comfirms the truths, such as yoga has physical and mental health benefits.  Unfortunately, the Toronto Star gave their interview with Broad the headline: Yoga can lower blood pressure, spice of sex - and kill you, which, in typical fashion of media reporting of health issues, over-emphasizes the fact that Broad found evidence that people have experienced strokes while doing yoga poses that involve extreme flexion of the neck.  I wouldn't be too concerned about this and certainly would not let this be a reason to avoid doing yoga.  But it is important to make sure you practice with a knowledgeable teacher and be cautious about engaging in any risky poses.

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