CHICAGO – It’s that time of year where days will be shorter, the nights longer, and both a lot colder.
While this change of seasons marks the onset of winter, it can also mark the beginning of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) for many people. It’s a form of depression that strikes during the months of fall and winter when there’s less sunlight, and some 10 million Americans, including many Chicagoans, experience it each year.
WGN News Now spoke to Dr. Sally Weinstein, Associate Director of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Center on Depression and Resilience, and clinical psychologist about the condition.
“It typically starts in early winter or late fall with improvement or omission in the spring and summer,” Weinstein said. “Scientific research generally supports this seasonal form of depression in adults and growing research also points to the existence in children and adolescence as well.”
Five percent of adults in the U.S. are affected by SAD, with women being diagnosed with the condition four times more than men, according to studies.
Symptoms of SAD include a lack of energy, overeating, weight gain and fatigue; plus feeling depressed most of the day, feeling sad, moody or anxious and a loss of interest in activities that used to bring you joy.
Symptoms can also include feelings of hopelessness or despair and even thoughts of suicide in severe cases.
“Recognizing the early signs of Seasonal Affective Disorder is important and knowing that there are ways to help or treat the symptoms,” Weinstein said. “There are real changes that are happening in the body that are caused by the changes in light and the onset of winter that can affect our mood and our sleep rather than just being lazy or hibernating in the winter. So, recognizing that this is real, that this is affecting our biology can really motivate you to take some steps to combat it.”
Weinstein said treatment and early diagnosis of SAD is vital. To combat it, she suggests people consider bright light therapy, focus on diet and exercise and seek professional help.
Light therapy is the process of getting more light exposure. It can be as simple as going outside and being exposed to natural light or using the artificial light from a light box.
“The goal here is to expose you to bright light every day to make up for the reduction of light that we see in winter. Bright light boxes are available commercially, These tend to be 20x brighter than ordinary indoor light, and you would expose yourself to this for 30 to 45 minutes a day, every day around the same time and make a routine around it,” Weinstein said. “This can reverse or repair some of the brain changes that are affected by the reduction of daylight that happens with the start of winter. These are things like changes to our internal biological clock and regulation of chemicals in the brain that play a really key role in our mood and sleep wake cycles. Chemicals you may have heard of like serotonin, dopamine and excessive melatonin production.”
Diet and Exercise
People with SAD tend to overeat and eat more carbohydrate-rich foods, especially starchy and sweets foods. Experts suggest they focus on eating a balanced diet and make sure they incorporate Vitamin D into their meals.
Weinstein said people with SAD tend to feel fatigue or have low energy levels and she suggests they try to keep the same routine they’d have if the days were longer and warmer. She also recommends spending time outdoors, exposure to natural light and to keeping up with your social activities despite the cold.
People with SAD are also advised to see a mental health professional to get their condition diagnosed and discuss therapy options such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a type of psychotherapy that’s reportedly effective for SAD. It can help children, adolescents and adults cope with the negative thoughts related to the winter season.
The months of January and February are said to be the most difficult for people with SAD in the U-S but the condition tends to improve in early spring and summer.
“The biggest tip I would recommend is to get a really good coat and take our cue from cultures that really embrace the onset of winter and the colder weather to make sure that we’re staying outside, getting exposed to light and still doing those outdoor activities even though the cold is making us want to stay inside.”
If you’d like more information on Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or depression, contact the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Center for Depression and Resilience.
In the video above, Weinstein talks more about children affected by SAD, and she explains how to use bright light box.