When winter makes you SAD

Vanessa Pralle

“Hey Mister sun, sun, Mister Golden sun please shine down on me.”

For most of us, this song is an anecdotal keepsake of childhood; a heartwarming memory of carefree Sesame Street days and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But for others, it’s grounded in the severe reality of seasonal depression caused by the lack of Mr. Golden Sun.

Last Tuesday, Dr. Christine Ware, a therapist in the Counseling Center, spoke at the Health Services facility about Seasonal Affective disorder (SAD).

SAD is an appropriate acronym, since it causes just that sadness. SAD is an actual depression disorder, while the more common, “winter blues” are just a mild form of depression or let-down during the winter months. Testing for SAD includes a comparison of moods over the years in summer and winter. If you detect a substantial and recurrent difference, you could potentially be suffering from SAD.

Symptoms include a depressed mood usually beginning around November, peaking in January and February and dying down once March emerges. These months happen to fall during some of students’ most academically trying periods, generating more pressure and stress, according to Ware. Specific symptoms include a general negative mood, apathy, irritability, low energy, fatigue, overeating, sleeping too much and lower interest in otherwise fun activities. Decreased sex drive is also a symptom.

Today, SAD affects between 10 and 20 percent of the United States population and is most prevalent north of the equator. In the United States, the syndrome is most common in the northern states and Alaska. It is also seen in Canada. One percent of Floridians are affected by SAD, while 10 percent of New Hampshire residents live with the disorder. It is also interesting to note that SAD is more common in women and young adults than in men or older people.

“Women are twice as susceptible to depression in general,” Ware says. “We think that this is due to a combination of everyday life stresses, and societal pressures put on women, and biochemical differences.”

Why do you feel like the Grinch during the wintertime? Scientists and doctors speculate that as the days get shorter and we receive less sun-exposure, our melotonin levels increase, triggering the sleepy hormone. Serotonin, the “happy hormone,” is released most during sunlight hours. The lack of sun exposure retards serotonin levels, leaving a person prone to biochemical imbalances, which cause sluggishness and fatigue. In other words, sunlight jump-starts our mood-elevating hormones in the same way sunlight provides plants the nutrients needed to create energy through photosynthesis.

“For no apparent reason, I don’t want to get up some mornings,” said one Villanova junior who battles with SAD.

Ways to combat SAD include increasing light exposure on a daily basis. For example, sitting closer to windows in class is a simple way to receive more sunlight. In addition, taking frequent half-hour walks outside or strolling to class instead of taking the shuttle can help.

A more extensive measure is light therapy. This entails receiving light doses for 30 to 45 minutes a day in an attempt to simulate real sunlight exposure. It is also possible to replace your regular lights with Broadspectrum or Fullspectrum bulbs that contain brighter full-spectrum light and can save up to 75 percent of the energy spent on regular bulbs. They cost on average $14 per bulb.

Regular exercise and sleep patterns can help to increase seratonin levels and combat weariness, according to Dr. Ware. Establishing a daily schedule is also beneficial.

“The Counseling Center is open to anyone experiencing bouts of depression,” she says. “We also have a psychiatrist on staff to prescribe medications if necessary. In addition, there’s a nutritionist on staff to offer help with food and diet.”

Soaking up more sun will help your body build up cholecalciferol, which is a Vitamin-D producing nutrient that can be saved up in your body for months at a time. Increasing Vitamin-D, in turn, helps increase seratonin levels. If you’re ever criticized for your obsession with tanning, just casually reply that you’re increasing your cholecalciferol levels. Remember, SAD occurs during one part of the year winter months. So it should be just a few more weeks until flowers sprout from the earth and our winter blues will be last year’s news.