The Winter Blues: How the Lack of Sunlight in Winter Affects Us Physically
By Erin Rebello
As the temperature drops, the leaves fall, and the puffy jackets are brought out of storage, it’s a sure sign that winter is on the horizon. Besides the very obvious signs of changing seasons, you may have also noticed some more subtle changes in your mood or behaviour. Perhaps you feel more upset or tired, or perhaps you experience difficulties getting out of bed in the morning. If that’s the case, you might just be someone who suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as SAD.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a mood disorder lasting 40% of the year, brought on mainly by the change in seasons from autumn to winter. SAD affects around 5% of the population severely, and another 10% to 20% on a milder level. SAD is more common the more northern a country is, leading researchers to believe that it is caused by the amount of sunlight we receive on a daily basis, or more specifically, a lack of sunlight. Since SAD is a depressive disorder, it presents with many of the same signs and symptoms as general depression, including:
- Losing interested in things you usually enjoy
- Feeling low energy or tired
- Feeling depressed most days
- Changes in eating behaviour or appetite
- Suicidal thoughts or actions
If you’ve noticed any of these symptoms in yourself, the first thing you should do is visit your family doctor. The symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder overlap with many other mental and physical conditions, and working with your doctor will allow you to get to the root of your issue, whether it’s SAD or something completely different. Your family doctor will also be able to refer you to further options, whether that is a psychiatrist, a therapist, or a group therapy session. Like any other mental health concern, Seasonal Affective Disorder can have serious and lasting effects, so it’s best to get it checked out as soon as possible.
After speaking with your doctor, there are a few therapies and treatments you can consider. First and foremost, they may ask you to go outside more often. Natural sunlight is important to both our circadian rhythm and vitamin D production, so it’s no surprise that getting more daylight can be beneficial. Even though the sunlight isn’t as strong as the summertime, even just a few minutes of fresh air can work wonders for your mental and physical wellbeing. Another option often recommended by doctors is an SAD light box. Light boxes consist of a panel of whole-spectrum lights which produce light very similar to that of the sun (minus the UV damage, of course!). For most lightboxes, it is recommended to turn on the lightbox and point it towards your face for 20 to 30 minutes bright and early in the morning. Light therapy is considered to be quite effective at treating patients, especially in combination with medications and therapy.
Overall, Seasonal Affective Disorder is a serious depressive condition caused by the change in seasons, and can greatly impact your quality of life. If you or a friend are experiencing any symptoms of SAD, your best course of action is to share your concerns with your family doctor and go from there.
American Family Physician. “Seasonal Affective Disorder.” https://www.aafp.org/afp/2000/0301/p1531.html.
Mayo Clinic. “Seasonal affective disorder (SAD).” https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20364651.
Mayo Clinic. “Seasonal affective disorder treatment: Choosing a light therapy box.” https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/in-depth/seasonal-affective-disorder-treatment/art-20048298.
Premier Health. “Lack of Sunlight, Shorter Days Leads to Winter Blues.” https://www.premierhealth.com/news-and-events/news/news-release/2018/01/18/lack-of-sunlight-shorter-days-leads-to-winter-blues.