23 Feb Beating the winter blues in Central Oregon
We might think of Bend’s tourism marketing machine as a new phenomenon, born in recent boom times. But in fact, appealing ideas thrown out to lure folks to certain places is a practice that has been going on for a long time. For instance, have you heard the “fact” that Bend gets 300 days of sunshine a year? That came from a marketing campaign created in the early 1900s. And it’s not true.
According to George Taylor, meteorologist and former director of the Oregon Climate Service at Oregon State University, Central Oregon only gets, on average, 186 sunny days a year, and the amount of sunlight that we get during the fall and winter months is minimal. Compared to our cousins on the west side of the Cascades, we’re still comparably bathed in sunshine here. But still, the long winter months of cold and dark can have a significant impact on many of us, and the myths we’ve been told about sunny days can result in a disconnect between how people think they’re supposed to feel and how they actually feel.
But there are methods to alleviate the winter blues, many of which are drawn from the study of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is a type of depression triggered by the change in seasons. It usually begins in fall or winter when the days become shorter, lasting until the brighter days of spring, and impacts millions of people each year. “People who live in predominantly overcast areas are affected more prominently, but even people who live in Bend struggle with SAD,” says Amanda Oliver, Licensed Practical Nurse. Oliver has been an LPN for 25 years, most recently at Bend Memorial Clinic. “I think SAD is a lot more noticeable here. We’re all used to the sunshine, so when the shorter days and oppressive weather come around people start feeling moody and sluggish.”
Shorter days and reduced exposure to sunlight disrupt vitamin D and melatonin production and circadian rhythms. Vitamin D plays a star role in one’s joy factor, and the body needs sunlight to produce it. The cold of winter drives many people inside, resulting in a vitamin D deficiency. The longer nights and shorter days can disrupt people’s circadian rhythms (the body’s internal sleep/wake cycle), and the darker days can stimulate too much melatonin production, leaving people with SAD feeling groggy, irritable, sapped of energy and just wanting to hibernate. “It does something to you when you can’t see the sun; people get physically ill,” says Oliver.
Michelle Robinson of Redmond has been affected by SAD for over 20 years. “When SAD takes affect, I never want to get out of bed, I feel tired and drained of energy. I become anti-social and feel worthless,” says Robinson. “It’s like a black cloud that follows you around all winter.”
On the bright side, there are ways to combat the effects of SAD. If the weather isn’t too miserable, bundle up and go for a walk, build a snowman or frolic with the ducks at Drake Park, anything that gets you outside to take advantage of what sunlight there is. If it’s just too darn cold, open your blinds and let in as much natural light as you can. Another option is to utilize a light therapy box; they emit a bright light in different wavelengths that mimics sunshine. Sitting in front of a light box for 30 minutes a day has proved effective for a majority of SAD sufferers. Also, upping your vitamin D intake can put a skip in your step. “To counteract SAD, we give our patients vitamin D supplements,” says Oliver. “It doesn’t help everyone, but it helps a lot of them.”
“I have to do the exact opposite of what I feel like doing,” says Robinson. “I go outside for walks, hang out with friends and exercise. I also open all the blinds and curtains and sit next to the windows, following the sun around in my house like a cat.” Oliver says the best way to counter SAD is to seek out the help of a professional and start treatment before the symptoms rear their ugly heads. “Once people realize what it is, that it’s just SAD, they tend to not feel so guilty and isolated, and they tend to want to take better care of themselves,” explains Oliver.
This winter, as the sunlight wanes and frost settles on the pine trees, take charge of the winter blues, get outside and leave hibernation to the bees. In a few months, the high desert will once again be immersed in the warm rays of the summer sun, offering respite from the winter doldrums. And there’s always the alternative—fleeing Central Oregon for a sunny, tropical vacation.