Seasonal affective disorder is a real thing

By Tom Wolber, Transcript Corespondent

The dark days of winter are approaching.

Shorter days, lack of sunlight and cold temperatures trigger powerful biological reactions in plants, animals and humans. Many animals shut down and hibernate or fall into a state of torpor.

In people, too, winter can trigger an episodic physiological response called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

The level of melatonin (a sleep hormone) goes up, and folks become tired, inactive, disinterested, lethargic and even depressed. We crave warmth and comfort, including comfort foods such as cookies and chocolate. This is a natural, biologically-based survival strategy, not a psychosomatic “disorder.”

In times when the temperatures fall and food becomes scarce, conserving energy is a logical adoptive behavior. A more general feeling of winter blues is experienced by up to 20 percent of the population.

Depending on the exact definition of the word, about 5 percent of Americans suffer from the more debilitating effects of SAD. The farther north you go, the more pronounced SAD becomes.

In sun-rich southern states such as Florida, SAD prevalence is as low as 1-2 percent, but in northern states such as New Hampshire or Alaska it can be as high as 10 percent. The same is true for Europe where SAD is highest in Scandinavia and Russia and lowest in the Mediterranean countries.

For Ohio residents, SAD is nothing new. However, for new Ohio Wesleyan students from southern states or other countries the experience can be confusing and nerve-racking at first. By the way, the scientist who first explored SAD in a systematic manner was Norman E. Rosenthal. His book “Winter Blues” (first published in 1983) remains the standard introduction on SAD.

The good news is there are multiple strategies and therapies that allow you to cope with SAD.

Experts such as Rosenthal advise staying active during the winter months. If you bundle up, you can still go outside and catch some fresh air, sunshine and vitamin D. Taking regular walks will boost your mood and morale.

It is well-established that exercise has an antidepressant effect. Another strategy is “talking therapy” by staying socially involved with family members, relatives, friends or a counselor. You may want to join a club or start a new hobby.

Many people already practice SAD therapy, without realizing it, when they go to the mall and shop or visit family over the holidays. It is not a coincidence that the biggest shopping season of the year coincides with the time the days are shortest.

“Light therapy” is another natural stratagem to fight the winter blues. Specifically equipped SAD “light boxes” ensure you receive a daily dose of bright light. White fluorescent light seems to work best. For optimal treatment, 10,000 lux is recommended. There are no known side effects, but please use the boxes only as directed.

The counseling centers of multiple colleges and universities offer such light boxes and OWU is among them. The boxes are also commercially available.

A healthy, balanced diet can also help people stay alert and functional during the winter season. Studies have shown, for example, that fish-eating nations such as Iceland and Japan have significantly lower SAD rates compared to other countries in the northern hemisphere.

If you have the time and means, a ski trip to sunny mountain slopes or a trip to the Caribbean can also do wonders for you. Some folks have permanently relocated to more southern climates, with good results as far as SAD is concerned.

In the overwhelming majority of SAD cases, prescribed antidepressants and medical intervention is not required. Only in extraordinary circumstances may episodic SAD lead to a more serious chronic depression.

This would be the time when professional medical help is called for and when antidepressants can be used as a last resort.

If you exercise, stay socially connected, seek out natural or artificial light and eat well, you should be able to survive the annual winter funk without great difficulties.


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