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Backpacker Magazine – February 2006

Health Tips: Beat Winter Blues

Fend off a cold-weather slump with these expert strategies.

by: Traci Macnamara

If this season's short, dreary days have you down, think about the plight of researchers at Antarctica's McMurdo Station. There, the sun sets in February and doesn't rise again until August. But whether home is the South Pole or the South Side of Chicago, winter days have the same basic effect: They disrupt production of the sleep hormone melatonin, putting us at risk for a mild depression known as the winter blues, or its more severe cousin, Seasonal Affective Disorder. These conditions are all too familiar to medical anthropologist Lawrence Palinkas, Ph.D., who has devoted two decades to studying the effects of living at McMurdo and other extreme environments. He offers this advice.

Exercise "People who work out cope better with the stress of environmental changes," explains Palinkas. So get to the gym, or better yet, get outside: Studies show that an hour of hiking, skiing, or running outdoors (even in overcast conditions) helps counter the depressive effects of short winter days.

Connect "Social interaction decreases feelings of isolation," says Palinkas. Organize a showshoe hike, take a photography class, or do what "winter-overs" at McMurdo do: organize a bowling league.

Eat Well Give in to pasta cravings. "Carbohydrates help regulate hormones that affect our mood," explains Palinkas. But don't overdo it; weight gain can exacerbate feelings of depression.

Accept Limitations Unrealistic expectations can contribute to feeling down, warns Palinkas. So plow through your "to-do" list--learn to snowboard, organize last year's trip photos, and repair tattered gear-but set reasonable goals.

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