Dark winter days get you down?

The killing cold weather of Saskatchewan winters can be offset by clear sunny days. The bright sunshine does little to warm exposed skin but it elevates the spirit and makes winter bearable. However, the longer nights and cloudy days of winter push some people into depression. They might be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

You might not be aware how your body is craving sunshine. I talked to a man who worked the night shift for 20 years. He went to work in the dark and slept during the with the light blocked from his windows. The pandemic forced him to move to a day shift and the change in his mood was literally night and day. He enjoys the sunshine, is now happier and more sociable. Even if he is stuck inside working all day, he can look out at the sun.

The Mayo Clinic says SAD is a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons. SAD symptoms usually start in the fall and continue into the winter, sapping your energy and making you feel moody. These symptoms often resolve during the spring and summer. Less often, SAD causes depression in the spring or early summer and resolves during the fall or winter month. Treatment for SAD may include light therapy, counselling and medications.

The clinic says: Don’t brush off that yearly feeling as simply a case of the “winter blues” or a seasonal funk that you have to tough out on your own. Take steps to keep your mood and motivation steady throughout the year.

It’s normal to have some days when you feel down. But if you feel down for days at a time and you can’t get motivated to do activities you normally enjoy, contact your health care provider. This is especially important if your sleep patterns and appetite have changed, you turn to alcohol for comfort or relaxation, or you feel hopeless or think about suicide. The anxiety and isolation of the pandemic are no doubt worsening the symptoms of SAD for many people.

The cause of SAD is not yet known but Mayo Clinic suggests some factors may affect SAD:

  • Your biological clock (circadian rhythm). The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may cause winter-onset SAD. This decrease in sunlight may disrupt your body’s internal clock and lead to feelings of depression.
  • Serotonin levels. A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, might play a role in SAD. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin that may trigger depression.
  • Melatonin levels. The change in season can disrupt the balance of the body’s level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.

There is as yet no way to prevent SAD but you can manage the symptoms. Exercise and bright lights help your body to produce serotonin. Some people find it helpful to begin treatment before symptoms would usually start in the fall. You may be able to head off serious changes in mood, appetite and energy levels, as you can predict the time of the year in which these symptoms may start.

Like the 1960s musical Hair says: Let the sunshine in!