Last week it was 75 degrees and sunny. Students wearing shorts, t-shirts and smiles congregated around picnic tables and tossed frisbees across the quad. A walk across campus was not a nuisance, but a delight under the warm rays of the autumn sun.
Only a week later, temperatures are cut in half. Students trudge to class against the forces of snow and wind with heads down and hoods up. Even the sun turns in early now, making 6 p.m. feel like 10 p.m.
It’s officially winter: the season of holidays, blizzards and depression.
Seasonal affective disorder, commonly referred to as seasonal depression, is a form of depression that is triggered by the seasons changing. According to FamilyDoctor.org, between 4% and 6% of people in the U.S. suffer from SAD. Another 10% to 20% experience it in a milder form.
As the acronym implies, having SAD isn’t fun. Its symptoms include, but are not limited to, lack of motivation, extreme fatigue, irritability, weight gain, sleeping problems and loss of interest in usual activities.
If you find yourself oversleeping, craving lots of carbs and feeling less motivated than usual, SAD could be to blame.
So what causes SAD? While researchers haven’t been able to pin down one definitive reason, they have a couple of ideas.
For one, the reduced sunlight experienced at the start of winter can throw off the body’s circadian rhythm. This is the body’s internal clock, which regulates mood, sleep and hormones. When it is disrupted by diminishing daylight hours, depression can ensue.
Also, the sun is a major source of vitamin D. While it’s easy to get our fill of vitamin D in the summer by soaking up rays, decreased sunlight in the winter can lead to vitamin D deficiency. Since serotonin levels are boosted by vitamin D intake, the lack of this essential vitamin causes serotonin levels to drop.
While serotonin levels are falling, melatonin levels are rising. Melatonin is a chemical that affects sleep and mood. Lack of sunlight leads to increased melatonin production, causing tiredness and sluggishness.
If you think you might have SAD, or experience the winter blues to at least some extent, there is hope. Experts have some recommendations to help you get through the winter.
First of all, make sure you are still getting your vitamin D. Foods high in vitamin D include canned tuna, salmon, mushrooms, fortified orange juice and fortified milk. If none of these appeal to your taste buds, you can take vitamin D supplements.
Considering that SAD stems from a lack of sunlight, why not attack the problem at the source with light therapy? Special therapy lamps are available that mimic sunlight, like this one on Amazon. The light exposure from these therapy lamps has been proven to improve mood in some people with SAD. Counseling services has a “happy light” that students can make an appointment to use.
Lastly, get outside. When the winter blahs start to hit, all you may want to do is curl up under your covers, eat Christmas cookies and take a nap. However, hibernation is not a good option. Find a hobby that makes you look forward to getting outdoors in the winter, like sledding, skiing, ice fishing or snowshoeing. The more sunlight you expose yourself to, the better.
And if all else fails, find comfort in knowing that winter, albeit long, dark and cold, always comes to an eventual end.