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Winter Wonderland Blues

seasonal affective disoreder

To some people, winter brings snowfalls and shovels; to others, winter brings a form of depression.

Winter in Wisconsin isn’t ideal. The sun sets at half past four, the sky is a frosty shade of grey and roaring winds do little to motivate activity.

While some snowy spirits aren’t bothered by the multi-layered attire and waves of winter precipitation, others wonder, “Why go out?” Part of that population may suffer from a form of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in which someone with normal mental health throughout most of the year experiences predictable depressive symptoms during one particular season. It typically occurs in a recurrent cycle, year after year, and is statistically more prevalent in women (comprising 60 to 90 percent of people who experience the depressive seasonal pattern) and young adults.

In Wisconsin, SAD symptoms tend to begin during the autumn months (October and November) and become most severe during the darkest months (December and January). The symptoms begin to lift as the days get longer (February and March). Because of the length of winter this far north of the equator, symptoms often do not resolve completely until April or May.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, SAD isn’t a specific diagnosis, but instead an indicator of major depression. A deficit in melatonin, a neurochemical involved in the regulation of our mood and functionality and produced by our brains during the hours of darkness, appears to be related to the depression associated with SAD.

Symptoms of SAD tend to be similar to other forms of depression, such as decreased energy, inability to concentrate, increased sleep and daytime sleepiness, weight gain, loss of motivation for work, unhappiness and irritability, social withdrawal, and diminished interest in pleasurable activities.

“Typically, you’d have the majority of those symptoms for about two winter seasons,” says Leah Diedrick-Williams, a licensed clinical social worker and behavioral health coordinator for Ascension. “In between the winter seasons, there is a full remission. During the spring and summer months, the symptoms are essentially gone, but return in fall and winter.”

She adds there is a long-standing history of using light therapy to treat SAD. These special light boxes emit bright fluorescent light to mimic outdoor light and can be effective in causing a chemical change in the brain that lifts a person’s mood. When the light enters a person’s eyes, the retina alerts the hypothalamus (the portion of the brain that contains a number of small nuclei), which regulates sleeping, eating, body temperature and libido and is disrupted when a person suffers from SAD.

A common approach is to sit in front of such a light source for 30 minutes per day. This is best done in the morning, in order to avoid the side effect of insomnia. Symptoms of depression typically improve within three to four weeks if light therapy is going to help.

Antidepressant medications or talk therapy are also effective. It’s also recommended to spend time outdoors on sunny days to curb mild forms of seasonal depression and vigorous exercise for at least 30 minutes a day, three times per week, particularly during winter season.

Research supports that staying active helps reduce symptoms of depression and is hugely important during winter months. It’s strongly recommended to anyone with depressive symptoms.

If you have repeated seasonal depression, it’s advised to talk to a mental health professional about prevention methods, especially before purchasing a light box.


If symptoms are interfering with work and/or interpersonal relationships, make an appointment to see a health care provider as soon as possible. If you have thoughts of hurting yourself or anyone else, call Affinity NurseDirect (800-362-9900).

Top 10 Health Investments for the New Year (and Beyond) 

cardiovascular health

Illness has become very expensive these days. So, staying well is more important than ever. You must keep your body and mind healthy if you want your finances to be healthy, too. Here are the top 10 health investment tips of time and money:

1. Use Your EAP

Learn how to access your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP). It costs you nothing. On the other hand, stress, depression, relationship problems, alcohol or other substance use problems can be very expensive. Mental health issues like these can lead to physical illness, and every type of physical illness is made worse by these mental health conditions. If you are in need, EAP is by far the most economical and accessible resource you can find.

2. Stop Smoking

If you use tobacco, you must quit. Even if it hasn’t made you sick yet, it costs a bundle to use tobacco, almost $2,000 a year for a pack-a-day smoker. Once it makes you sick (and it will), your treatment could cost tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. But trying to quit cold turkey, without help, rarely gets the job done. Only 3 to 5 percent of cold turkey attempts work. Most employers offer tobacco cessation assistance; see if there is a program available at work. It may be free. Learn what your health plan offers for cessation coverage, such as for medicines and programs, which are far more effective than trying to quit without help. And you can always use the Wisconsin Tobacco Quit Line (1-800-QUIT-NOW) free.

3. Take Your Meds the Right Way

Prescription medicines can be expensive. But, the most costly prescription may be on one that you don’t buy! That is the one your doctor prescribes, but which you fail to take. You must take your prescriptions exactly the way they are written, 100 percent. If your doctor’s advice is unclear, ask questions and don’t leave the office until you fully understand the answers. If you sense a problem later that worries you or that makes it hard to take your prescriptions 100 percent correctly, talk to the pharmacist. It’s free! If the store window is too busy, ask for a time you can return, or a time the pharmacist can call you. But don’t stop or skip medicines! Your doctor prescribed them for a good reason.

4. Have an Emergency Plan

It’s 3 a.m. Who do you want to take your call? If you or a family member is sick or injured, you need to decide what to do very quickly and in a stressful situation. If the situation seems dangerous to life or limb (chest pain, uncontrollable bleeding, stroke symptoms, seizure, etc.) then call 911. If it isn’t that kind of situation, call Affinity Nurse Direct (1-800-362-9900). Mistakes in those situations can be costly, either of money, or of health. Make the call, get advice, do it right the first time. Don’t guess.

5. Limit Alcohol

People who have drinking binges aren’t necessarily alcoholics. And an occasional binge is not the same as a “bender.” But regardless, it is a strain on your health. That amount of alcohol is enough to increase accident risks, both on that day and the next. It is enough to increase blood pressure, cause heart rhythm irregularities, and stress the liver. The binge drinking definition (five or more drinks for a man, four or more for a woman) comes from research that shows this much alcohol is too much for the body to handle safely. If you choose to drink, you must do so only moderately, generally not more than two drinks in a day. That extra beer or two will cost you more than just what you pay the bartender.

6. Prevent Diabetes

How easy is it to get diabetes? Very easy! To help prevent it, you need to do two things: eat fruits and vegetables every day, and exercise and be active. It’s what you do every day that matters. Do whatever it takes!

7. Cut the Soda

Sweetened sodas contain high fructose corn syrup, which is clearly linked to an increased risk of diabetes. Studies have shown that people who average just one can of soda a day have an almost 50 percent greater chance of developing metabolic syndrome than people who average less than one soda a day. Considering that a 12 oz. can of sweetened soda contains the equivalent of almost 10 teaspoons of sugar, this shouldn’t be a surprise. But even diet sodas increase the risk of metabolic syndrome! Their artificial sweeteners “sharpen the sweet tooth” and make people eat more sweets. So, drink less soda – a lot less. The healthiest beverage is also the drink that is free and available everywhere – good old H2O!

8. Aspirin Therapy

Has your doctor advised you to take an aspirin, or a baby aspirin, every day to reduce your risk of heart attack or stroke? Then, you’d better take your aspirin! As simple as it sounds, aspirin is among the most effective preventive treatments known to science, for those people in need. If your doctor hasn’t advised you about this, then ask your doctor if you should take it, particularly if you’ve ever had a heart problem or stroke.

9. Safety First

Home accidents are common, can be tragic, and cost money. Falls are the most serious type of home accident. Prevent falls by following these steps:

  • Throw away that old and rickety ladder, and replace it with a new one that is safe and solid. It will cost less than the co-pay from an emergency room visit for a broken arm.
  • Put up secure handrails in stairways and use them.
  • Fix broken steps.
  • Use a night light.
  • Don’t tolerate throw rugs that may slip and slide.
  • Promptly salt or sand your slippery, icy steps this winter.
  • Christmas lights that you can hang while both your feet are on the ground are just as festive as the ones your crazy neighbor puts on his rooftop!

10. Get Your Screenings

Don’t miss the preventive screenings that are needed for your age and gender. Men need to begin annual prostate cancer screening with an exam and blood test (PSA) by their doctor by age 50 (45 for African-Americans and for those with a family history). Women need to start annual mammograms at age 40. And, everyone by age 50 needs colorectal cancer screening (colonoscopy, or sigmoidoscopy/barium enema plus fecal occult blood testing). An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. And, it costs a whole lot less!

Top 100 Reasons to Get a Doctor

primary care provider

There are more than 100 reasons to Get a Doc. Do any of these sound like you? If so, find a doc at Ministry or Affinity.

  1. Because you’re not feeling well.
  2. Because your kids aren’t feeling well.
  3. Because your man isn’t feeling well.
  4. Because diabetes runs in your family.
  5. Because you’re feeling a little older.
  6. Because your father had heart problems.
  7. Because you’re starting to wonder if YOU might have heart problems.
  8. Because you’re worried something might be wrong.
  9. Because you don’t understand why you feel so weak.
  10. Because you’re just not feeling yourself lately.
  11. Because you’ve been slowing down.
  12. Because you’ve been ignoring it for too long.
  13. Because people depend on you.
  14. Because your family depends on you.
  15. Before that itch becomes a rash.
  16. Before an ache turns into pain.
  17. Before the tickle in your throat — grows into a cough.
  18. Before tiny issues become real problems.
  19. Because you should treat the symptom and the cause.
  20. Because your mother’s heart condition could become your heart condition.
  21. Before your untreated diabetes becomes something much worse.
  22. Because your questions have turned into fears.
  23. Because what could have been prevented now needs to be cured.
  24. Because “just in time” can turn into “much too late.”
  25. Because you smoke.
  26. Because you don’t want to smoke.
  27. Because high blood pressure runs in your family.
  28. Because you don’t know about your own blood pressure.
  29. Because that mole looks different every time you look in the mirror.
  30. Because you can’t catch your breath.
  31. Because you want to learn more about wellness.
  32. Because you have questions about your health.
  33. Because you have questions about your family’s health.
  34. Because you’re pregnant.
  35. Because you want to get pregnant and it’s not happening.
  36. Because your stream is weak.
  37. Because you can’t afford to be sick.
  38. Because you can’t afford not to be healthy.
  39. Because that sharp pain keeps dulling your senses.
  40. Because you’re seeing spots, and you’re not looking at polka dot wrapping paper.
  41. Because you’re not sleeping.
  42. Because you’re not waking up well rested.
  43. Because you know your way around fast food restaurants better than the local grocery store.
  44. Because you feel faint – a lot.
  45. Because you’re always feeling hot, and it’s not because of that new outfit.
  46. Because the emergency room knows you by name.
  47. Because you have weakness in the knees, and you’re not around your high school crush.
  48. Because you’re thirsty all the time.
  49. Because everything is getting on your last nerve.
  50. Because your friends have started calling you “Wheezy.”
  51. Because there’s nothing macho about being in pain.
  52. Because your stream is more of a drip, drip, OW!
  53. Because you constantly run to the bathroom.
  54. Because your knees and ankles ache from the all weight that they’re supporting.
  55. Because your blood pressure is higher than your IQ, and you’re VERY smart!
  56. Because having high cholesterol doesn’t win a prize like a high series in bowling.
  57. Because your ratio of bad cholesterol to good cholesterol is bad.
  58. Because you don’t “know your numbers.”
  59. Because that bump isn’t going away.
  60. Because that wound isn’t healing.
  61. Because your kids’ medical history reads “bronchitis, strep throat, pneumonia.” Repeat.
  62. Because you feel sad all the time.
  63. Because your glass is half empty. Always.
  64. Because taking that flight of stairs to your apartment is like climbing a mountain.
  65. Because you can’t afford to miss work.
  66. Because your heart keeps racing and you aren’t.
  67. Because you want to set an example for your kids.
  68. Because you want to set an example for your mom.
  69. Because you want to set an example for your dad.
  70. Because they won’t go until you go first.
  71. Because you’ve accepted the challenge.
  72. Because you took the dare.
  73. Because you’re going to show them that you aren’t afraid of the doctor.
  74. Because you’re going to show that that you CAN go to the doctor.
  75. Because you want a health care partner that knows all about you.
  76. Because you want a health care partner that knows who you are.
  77. Because you want to know that you’ll always see the same doctor.
  78. Because you like knowing that you have an appointment, and the doctor will be there when you are.
  79. Because you miss doing what you used to do.
  80. Because you miss feeling how you used to feel.
  81. Because you need advice.
  82. Because you need to see a specialist and you don’t know how.
  83. Because your head feels like it’s going to explode.
  84. Because you have that pounding, pounding, pounding headache over and over and over.
  85. Because congestion is happening every day, and you’re not on the road in rush hour.
  86. Because you haven’t got time for the pain.
  87. Because your legs are swollen.
  88. Because that bug bite has grown to something that bugs you.
  89. Because you want to take care of yourself like you take care of others.
  90. Because those swollen glands won’t go down.
  91. Because you can’t keep anything down.
  92. Because you won’t let illness keep you down.
  93. Because you can’t keep putting it off.
  94. Because you shouldn’t keep putting it off.
  95. Because that little voice in your head knows something’s wrong.
  96. Because you have more than a gut feeling that you need to go.
  97. Because you have no good reasons not to.
  98. Because it’s the cool thing to do.
  99. Because your loved one is telling you to go to the doctor.
  100. Because your loved one is constantly telling you to go to the doctor. Just go!! What are you waiting for?

Holidays and Kids’ Safety

kid playing in snowIt’s that time of the year! The holidays are upon us and as we enjoy all the festivities, thoughts of safety might not be at the top of our mind.

As you decorate your homes and spend time with your family and friends, here are tips to help keep kids safe this holiday:

  • Real Christmas trees look beautiful and smell great, but they need to be watered regularly. If not, needles can dry out and create a potential fire hazard. Water your tree regularly.
  • Kids are curious and will want to play with the ornaments on the tree. Put breakable ornaments or ones with metal hooks at the top of the tree. Position ornaments on the bottom of the tree that are safe for young children.
  • Keep candles at least 12 inches away from anything that can burn. Always blow out candles when you leave the room or before you go to sleep.
  • Kids love to reach and grab things any time of the year. Remember to use the back burner of your stove and turn handles away from the edge to prevent burns from hot food or liquids.
  • Consider your child’s age when purchasing a toy or game this holiday and any time of the year. Take the time to read the instructions to make sure the gift is appropriate for the age of the child.
  • Be on the lookout for small pieces, including button batteries that may be included or need to be added in electronic toys. These games may be great for older kids, but can pose a danger for those oh so curious younger siblings.

For more information on keeping kids safe while enjoying the holidays, visit the Safe Kids website. Happy – and safe – holidays!

Heal, Buddy: Compassionate canine provides puppy love

buddy therapy dog

“Hey Buddy!” “Buddy’s here!” “Look it’s Buddy!”

Bob Peterson is used to the attention his therapy dog, Buddy, gets every time he steps into St. Francis Hospital to visit patients and staff.

“I know I’m just the guy with the leash and it doesn’t bother me at all,” said Peterson, Buddy’s owner and hospital volunteer.

Buddy, is a five-year-old, yellow lab and a pretty special, trained therapy dog. Buddy started making weekly visits to St. Francis in January, 2015 and is well-known with a growing fan base.

A therapy dog is trained to provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, or retirement and nursing homes, and to people with learning difficulties or in stressful situations.

Buddy brings smiles to dozens of patients on several floors but it might be when Buddy reaches the Mental Health and Addiction unit on the seventh floor that his impact is most felt.

Lisa McInnes, Occupational Therapist, has seen firsthand how Buddy can get patients out of their rooms to interact with him: “Buddy is here to bring unconditional love regardless of age, language, literacy, or socioeconomic background. After a therapy session with Buddy, I’ve seen a reduction in stress, improved moods, and better communication skills. You can see the tension just melt when patients are engaged petting or playing with him.”

Therapy dogs are used to benefit patients suffering with emotional and behavioral disorders, depression, autism, substance abuse, and dementia.

“Animals accept us as we are. They don’t judge, so patients can interact with them safe in the knowledge that there is no hidden agenda. Buddy can make just about anyone smile, but when you’re hurting he’ll also give you a hug and lick your tears,” said Peterson.

Many patients find hospital stays lonely and stressful. A visit from a therapy dog like Buddy can help by providing a connection to the outside world. When Buddy walks into their room, they know somebody cares.

“It’s amazing to me how people open up when they see Buddy. I learn all kinds of things about people’s lives. I know Buddy is making a positive impact on patients who need a lift or someone to talk to. It’s very rewarding work,“ said Peterson.

Disclaimer: The information found on Affinity's blog is a general educational aid. Do not rely on this information or treat it as a substitute for personal medical or health care advice, or for diagnosis or treatment. Always consult your physician or other qualified health care provider as soon as possible about any medical or health-related question and do not wait for a response from our experts before such consultation. If you have a medical emergency, seek medical attention immediately.

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