Does winter make you SAD?

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 15, 2014

It’s been cold. Not nearly so cold here as in other places, but still, much colder than we’re accustomed to, and much greyer, too.

And that leads to seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – a specifier of depression that is said to be caused by the combination of cold temperatures, precipitation and shorter days.

Dr. Norman Rosenthal, the clinical psychiatrist who first described the condition, defines it on his website as “a type of depression that occurs regularly, every autumn and winter, when the days get short and dark, though it may occur at other times as well.”

Seeing daylight past 5 p.m. makes me happy. Sunshine and blue skies make me happier.

And Rosenthal said that to avoid SAD, we need to take advantage of those.

“I think that the first thing is to keep an eye on the weather … and grab any opportunity you can to get outdoors. It seems as though light is necessary … to make us feel good and happy, and some need it more than others,” he said. “The second thing is, if there are rooms in the house with large windows that you can look out of, even if you’re indoors, you can still benefit from sunlight coming from outside. Or, there’s the old stand-by of bringing light fixtures into the home.”

Rosenthal explained that when sunlight enters the eyes it affects neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, also known as our “feel-good hormones.”

“If you don’t get enough light, these neurotransmitters can be in short supply,” says Rosenthal. The problem is most office buildings aren’t designed with maximum illumination in mind, he said.

Those who truly suffer from the disorder can benefit from a light box, he said. He also advises workers to take “light breaks” outdoors any time it is possible.

Forget sipping coffee at your desk, he said. Even a 10-minute walk outdoors can have a positive effect on countering SAD.

He also recommends avoiding sugary carbs, and spending time exercising.

“Exercise stimulates neurotransmitters to fire in the brain and can help counter the effects of SAD,” he said. “Exercise not only improves mood, but also helps reduce stress, which often exacerbates feelings of depression brought on by the winter blues.”

If the weather is as good in the next few days as forecasters say it will be, we certainly need to take advantage of it. I think it will be a long time before many of us Southerners complain about being hot again.