Winter’s Lack of Sunlight Can Lead to SAD

For some, the dark, gray days of winter are more than an annoyance.

In certain people, decreased exposure to sunlight can result in a set of symptoms called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. Local mental health professionals report seeing a handful of cases each year.

The condition is a form of depression often characterized by feeling down, fatigue, poor sleep, decreased activity, greater irritability and anxiety, said Decatur Memorial Hospital neuropsychologist Dr. Leroy Hall. Patients experiencing seasonal affective disorder might also feel increased sensitivity to social rejection, he added.

“It’s seasonal because it clears up with increased sunlight,” Hall said, explaining that sunlight is essential because it stimulates vitamin D production and influences the body’s sleep-wake cycle.

As much as 20 percent of the population could have some symptoms of the disorder without meeting all the diagnostic criteria, Hall said. But true seasonal affective disorder seems to appear, on average, in a very small subset of the population, said Hall and Steve Rathnow, a senior counselor at St. Mary’s Hospital.

Hall said he sees about five or six cases each year, and Rathnow estimated he sees three or four true cases.

“People have trouble dealing with wintertime,” Rathnow said.

People don’t get out as much, which curtails some of the activities from which they derive enjoyment, he said.

The disorder can be difficult to diagnose and often requires a look at several seasons’ worth of information, Rathnow said. He urged those feeling as though they could be experiencing patterns of seasonal depression to log their experiences to help the diagnostic process.

Once the disorder is recognized, there are several options for alleviating the symptoms, Hall and Rathnow said. Getting regular exposure to a sunlamp or light box with light that is about 25 times brighter than a normal living room lamp, SSRI antidepressants, stimulant medications such as Ritalin and acupuncture were a few of the treatment options mentioned by the professionals. Tanning booths are not an effective substitute for sunlight, they said.

Engaging in healthy lifestyle habits also remains important throughout the winter.

“From my standpoint, with any depression, in spite of feeling down and feeling like you don’t have any energy, it’s important to stay active,” Hall said, encouraging people to exercise at least a few times a week.

Eat a balanced, healthy diet rich with whole grains, protein, fruits and vegetables and get enough sleep but not too much, Rathnow advised. “You’ve got to find that balance.”