Seasonal Affective Disorder and Winter Swimming

It’s that time of year again. Cold weather, dark mornings and dark evenings. And for many people, its a time for seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also called winter depression. Basically, it’s a mood disorder that takes place only during certain times of the year – most commonly during the depths of winter. Symptoms include higher levels of anxiety, over sleeping, trouble waking, a craving for carbohydrates, and a general lack of energy. When you pair this with flu season in Canada, you have a recipe for a truly lousy January and February

For some swimmers it can be even worse.  Unlike most of the population, they spend the few precious daylight hours either in school, or in the pool. January can be the absolute worst, as high school summatives and exams also increase the stress loads.

As a coach, its often easy to see who suffers from SAD, and its surprising how many there are.  These swimmers generally are sluggishness, lack endurance, are less ability to cope with frustration, and show increased anxiety. The severity of the symptoms can vary tremendously from person to person.

Surprisingly, the specific causes of SAD are unknown, although most clues point to changes in available sunlight affecting our sleep cycles, which can lead to changes in our neurochemistry (reduced serotonin levels) and hormones (changes in melatonin levels), which can lead to the known symptoms.

Most people downplay this disorder, and just plan on toughing it out until the season passes. However, health specialists recommend dealing with it, especially as relatively easy steps can be taken. The first step is to get evaluated by your doctor. If diagnosed with SAD there are various ways to reduce symptoms, with the easiest being light therapy. This is really nothing more than a special, full-spectrum lamp that mimics outdoor sunlight, and can help to trick the brain into thinking there is more daylight.  The good news is that this technique is reported to have very few side effects, and can start working in as little as a few days. Other people use Vitamin D, as this vitamin is synthesized naturally by the body when exposed to sunlight, and so the theory is that Vitamin D levels are lower in winter. Tests are not conclusive as to the value of Vitamin D for SAD.

There are many other home remedies that I won’t get into. Those are best discussed with your doctor.

So swimmers, if you think you may have SAD, see your doctor. You don’t have to go through a few months of full-blown SAD every year without help. And the remedies can be pretty painless.


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