As the weather changes and days creep towards beloved winter holidays, gray skies and chilled drizzle might pull at your mood. While you should be thrilled about wearing comfy layers and those hot new boots, something is off. Perhaps it is a subtle shift at first, but soon it is obvious that your disposition has changed and you are noticeably down in the dumps. You don’t feel good. You sleep more and don’t have the energy you usually have.
Many women dismiss their sleepiness and fatigue to the flurry of activity associated with getting children back in school and the seasonal holidays. Consider that it may not be just your imagination; you may have a treatable condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, aka SAD.
SAD Risk Factors
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression and anxiety related to the decrease of sunlight in the autumn months. It generally starts at about the same time each year and, not surprisingly, ends when spring reliably delivers more sunlight each day. Some of us are hugely affected by the confusion in the human brain when our inner clock, known as the circadian rhythm, is bumped out of whack by changes in sun light.
This syndrome can continue for the entire six or seven months of winter. It can be particularly harsh on people who live in Alaska or inhabited portions of the Arctic Circle. It also affects those who live in the Pacific Northwest, or states like Maine, Vermont, or Minnesota, becoming more common the further you are from the equator. The individuals affected are all too familiar with the pronounced mood swings that result when the sun is hidden for weeks at a time.
According to the staff of the Mayo Clinic, factors that may increase your risk of SAD include:
- Being female – SAD is diagnosed 4 times more often in women than in men, but men may have more-severe symptoms.
- Age – Young people have a higher risk of winter SAD; winter SAD is less likely to occur in older adults.
- Family history – People with SAD may be more likely to have blood relatives with SAD or another form of depression.
- Having clinical depression or bipolar disorder – Symptoms of depression may worsen seasonally if you have one of these conditions.
Mental Health America lists the following 8 symptoms of SAD:
- Depression: misery, guilt, loss of self-esteem, hopelessness, diminished interest in activities, despair, and apathy
- Anxiety: tension and inability to tolerate stress
- Mood changes: extremes of mood and, in some, periods of mania in spring and summer
- Sleep problems: desire to oversleep and difficulty staying awake or, sometimes, disturbed sleep and early morning waking
- Lethargy: feeling of fatigue and inability to carry out normal routine
- Overeating: craving for starchy and sweet foods resulting in weight gain
- Social problems: irritability and desire to avoid social contact
- Sexual problems: loss of libido and decreased interest in physical contact
I recently met a woman who is a jewelry artist in charming Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island (PEI), Canada who described living in the Canadian Arctic Circle. There, she was subjected to months of darkness and unforgiving weather conditions. “It was fierce and so bad that there was no way to figure how to walk safely between my house and my neighbor’s, who lived just four houses down the street. I was desperately lonely and I was at home with little kids. I literally lost my mind.” The end of her antidote didn’t need any further details because this woman offered a bright, wide smile.
“What did you do?” I asked. “I moved here!” she giggled. She purred with joy in her light-flooded, second floor studio with huge pane windows. Interestingly, she worked with colorful glass beads that she made right there in the studio and her work burst with primary colors. Winter temperatures on Prince Edward Island range from 26 to 11 degrees Fahrenheit with up to thirty inches of snow in winter. When compared to the Arctic, there is significantly more sun light in PEI.
Of course, not everyone can relocate their entire family. Many must find remedies that work for where they live. Recognized treatment generally includes light therapy, psychotherapy, exercise, and medications. Artificial light therapy is intended to mimic natural day light. It is thought that treatment is most beneficial when administered in the early morning hours because it aids in regulating the circadian rhythm.
Light emitted by the sun appears white to our eyes, but in fact is made up of the full spectrum of colors. When sunlight shines through rain, the raindrops reflect and refract the light and split the colors. When we see a rainbow, we are seeing evidence of light’s color spectrum. One type of light therapy consists of sitting in front of a light box with full spectrum or “white light” that effectively replicates sunshine. Typically, a light therapy session might be thirty minutes to one hour, once or twice a day.
Some research has shown that a bandwidth of blue light is also effective in treating Seasonal Affective Disorder. Outdoor morning light contains more blue rays, and exposure to blue light can make you more alert. Also, regular exercise has been proven to mitigate depression. Going outdoors in the early morning to practice your morning exercise routine may be a good strategy.
The fact is that many of us experience a touch of the winter blues, even if it isn’t the full blown variety. There are several things that you might do in your own home to boost the amount of natural light inside your home during the winter months. Some are easy fixes and others might involve investment:
- Trimming overhanging trees and bushes near your windows will open a path for sunlight to enter the house.
- Add more artificial light in rooms via portable floor lamps or table lamps.
- Consider installing recessed down lights or surface mounted light fixtures for dark interior spaces such as hallways and basements.
- Install a solar tube, a popular device for light transmission. A solar tube is a rigid or flexible sheet metal tube with a reflective interior, which is installed through the roof. The tube ends in a 10 – 12 inch round light diffuser in the ceiling which lets in a remarkable amount of diffuse white light from the outside. In general, these tubes are economical and unobtrusive; perfect for remodeling or tight spots.
- Put in a skylight. Skylights are a bigger challenge to install, but allow the sunlight to pour directly through a large expanse of glass. Interestingly, Denmark, a northern country with long cold winters, was the country where roof windows were initially perfected. A native son, Villum Kann Rasmussen, wanted to find a way to bring daylight into the homes of his countrymen. Back in 1941, to improve the daily lives of people living in attic spaces and upper floors of old structures,the concept of the skylight was born. (Today, the VKRF foundation supports large research activities in the areas of technical and natural sciences, environmental, agricultural and veterinary sciences, and industrial research.)
Seasonal Affective Disorder can significantly compromise a woman’s everyday life. If you notice that your mood and energy change with the season, look into SAD and consider whether its recommended solutions can bring back your sunshine.