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The sun ‘is our lifeline,’ doctors say

Mental health doctors at Mercy Health and Spectrum Health say exercising, sunlight and self care are effective in combatting Seasonal Affective Disorder
Posted at 7:59 AM, Jan 09, 2021

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Dr. Carey Krause was so excited about the sun shining on Friday that he mentioned it to every patient in his unit and said, ‘Look out the window.’

“It’s just a part of who we are. We've spent most of our evolutionary existence in the sun,” said Dr. Krause, who’s the medical director for behavioral health for Mercy Health West Michigan. “In the last few hundred years, [we’ve] closed ourselves up in these boxes more and more, and I think that becomes increasingly difficult. I notice for myself that I come to work, it’s dark. Often when I leave, it’s dark. It seems like the entire winter is dark sometimes.”

From Thanksgiving to Christmas to New Year's, Michigan was mainly cold and gray. However, on Friday, the sun shined for a full day in Grand Rapids. Around noontime, people were out grabbing coffee downtown, walking and talking with friends and ice-skating at Rosa Parks Circle.

“Feels great. I know we don’t get a lot of days like this,” Alyssa McElheny said, walking near the ice rink. “I’m going to go for a run later, and this is making it so much easier to get outside and do that. If we could have this every day, that’d be great.”

McElheny said running is one of the ways that she gets through the winter, which tends to be cold, snowy, overcast and gray.

“Twenty below zero, snow four or five feet high,” is the way Charles Bennett described Michigan winters. However, the sun, he said, had a ‘very positive effect’ on him and others.

“The more the better, and I love it. I wish we could get many, many more days,” said Art Gadomski while taking an afternoon walk. “The summer and the past year have been great for sunshine, and I really, aside for the COVID thing, think our weather was phenomenal. So I welcome it anytime, especially here in Michigan.”

Dr. Subodh Jain recommended people go outside and enjoy the sun whenever it comes out. The winter can be so bad that it causes some people to experience depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is when a person's mood sours due to the changing of the seasons, from hot to cold.

He said people who battle SAD may constantly feel guilty, hopeless, worthless, and there’s a change to their appetite and sleep. He added that staying indoors due to COVID hasn't helped.

RELATED: Doctors worried seasonal affective disorder could be more prominent amid pandemic

“The pandemic is an add-on to the isolation, which we have been dealing with. Winter months, anyways, cause some isolation by the nature of it. We do not go out as much. We stay indoors. We do not see the sun as much, especially in this area,” said Dr. Jain, the division chief of behavioral health at Spectrum. ”Many families have not been able to see their own family members for thanksgiving and Christmas, which is the right thing to do with the current scenario. However, for our mental health it definitely takes a toll on us.”

So he advised people do photo therapy or light therapy. There's special lights that people can buy at stores or online to help combat depression but suggested people purchase one with the guidance of a mental health or medical provider.

Dr. Krause agreed on its effectiveness.

“What we have good evidence on is that using some form of light therapy really helps reset those things and can be very beneficial in treating the depression in mild-to-moderate forms of Season Affective Disorder,” said Dr. Krause. “Light alone is enough often to help people feel better.”

Dr. Jain also suggested practicing mindfulness to combat negative thoughts, to first acknowledge your feelings and then to connect with them through activities like journaling and yoga. He also recommended exercising. Even a walk around the block can change a person’s mood.

“It releases endorphins,” Dr. Jain said. “Endorphins are something which internally make us happy, and not just happy; it also reduces some of the other symptoms like pain.”

He added that if anyone is feeling pain or depression that he or she should call their doctor or a mental health provider so they can get the specific help that they need. However, when the sun is out, they should all be outside.

“The sun is as important to us as it is to Earth,” Dr. Jain said. “It is our lifeline.”