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Latinos and The Winter Blues

Photograph by Morena Escardo

If you've been feeling tired, apathetic, and avoiding all of your friends lately, or gained weight and craving more carbs and sweets than usual… you may be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Seasonal affective disorder may be new or unknown to you if you've recently moved to the U.S. or live in Florida or anywhere below it. I never heard of this disorder until I moved to England to go to college, and all I wanted to do was eat chocolate in bed. I knew something was off, but I thought it was just my reaction to the cold and my body asking for extra calories. Maybe that had something to do with it, but I was also suffering from SAD.

Few acronyms have ever been so spot on, as this condition makes people feel sad indeed. In fact, SAD is considered a form of depression that affects people mostly in the fall and winter, and is thought to be caused by the decreased hours of daylight — and not by the low temperatures, as I first thought was the cause of my hibernating cavewoman attitude back in college.

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CNN reports that 4 to 6 percent of the population suffer from this disorder during the cold months of the year (January and February being the worst), but up to 10 or 20 percent suffer from milder versions of it. Of this percentage, Harvard Medical School says women suffer from SAD more often than men, and that older people don't get it as much as younger people.

Even though the exact cause or causes of SAD are not completely known, one thing is clear: it occurs more often in places with less sunlight. So to prevent or combat it, creating the same positive effects that sunlight causes in the body and mind is key.

Latinos are particularly vulnerable to suffer from SAD because people with darker skin need many times more sun exposure to produce similar amounts of vitamin D than fair-skinned people.

Here's are some ways to combat seasonal affective disorder:

Vitamin D

When the ultraviolet light from the sun touches your skin, a hormone is created that improves your mood, strengthens your immune system, creates healthy bones in your body, and has many more positive effects than I have space to list here. Our modern sedentary lives, however, have us sitting indoors for most of the day, not spending enough time in the sun. Add to this the almost ubiquitous darkness during the winter in some parts of the world, and the body is left with an insufficient supply of this hormone. Vitamin D, if deficient, may be the single most important factor causing a person to suffer from seasonal affective disorder.

Latinos are particularly vulnerable to suffer from SAD because people with darker skin need many times more sun exposure to produce similar amounts of vitamin D than fair-skinned people. This only makes sense, as many of us are "genetically made" to live in warmer countries with stronger sun throughout the year. Most people would benefit from supplementing on vitamin D throughout the year, but particularly in the winter, and particularly in colder, darker places. And Latinos or other dark-skinned people living in cold places would benefit the most. Vitamin D may actually be all you need to start feeling much better.

If you're extra cautious about taking supplements, get your vitamin D levels checked first to confirm a deficiency. You can also try getting it through food. Cod liver oil is the best animal source of vitamin D you can get, which explains why children used to be forced to take a spoonful of it daily in the past. Abuelas and moms always know best!

Light therapy

Sitting in front of a box shining a bright light on you is another effective method to prevent, improve, or get rid of symptoms caused by SAD, as this light affects the brain chemicals responsible for regulating your mood. You can find this kind of therapy in some spas, or ask a mental health provider or psychiatrist to recommend a place close to you. If you have the time, try getting this light naturally, by taking long outdoor walks, and making sure your desk or lounging area at home is next to a window that receives good light exposure. For more severe cases of SAD, however, this may not be enough and light therapy may be best.

Practice aerobic exercise

What better way is there to improve one's mood naturally than to move? Pick your favorite aerobic exercise, and commit to practicing it daily during the winter. It may be hard at first, especially if you're already suffering from SAD and feel like staying in bed all day. But a few days of sacrifice at first will soon have you feeling like yourself again.

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