By: Michelle Morra-Carlisle Jan 31, 2011

Why winter's grey skies can cause a lot more than the blues

Are people in the Maritimes less cheerful in November than people in Venezuela? Are residents of Thunder Bay, Ont. more likely to find January unbearable than someone in Kenya?

Apparently so. Geography is a factor in seasonal affective disorder (SAD). According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, this major depressive disorder is “extremely rare in those living within 30 degrees of the Equator, where daylight hours are long, constant and extremely bright.”

Unfortunately, here in the Great White North, some people become depressed in the darker, colder months. Not to be confused with the common “winter blues,” SAD can be severe and debilitating.

“There’s a continuum that happens with SAD,” says Barbara Everett, PhD, a researcher for the Mood Disorders Society of Canada. “When it is on the far end of the continuum it is indeed a disorder.”

SAD affects two to three per cent of Canadians. It may begin at any age but most commonly between 18 and 30 years. Women are more prone to it than men, and children and adolescents are also vulnerable.

No one is entirely sure of the exact cause. Studies show that when there is less light (including night-time), the brain produces melatonin, a hormone that makes us feel drowsy. SAD may be related to increased levels of melatonin and to decreased levels of serotonin, the brain’s natural “feel-good” chemical.

Treating SAD

There is sunnier news: Knowing the nature of the disorder can make it easier to treat.

“When people notice in winter months they slip into a deep depression but then inexplicably perk up over the summer months, that helps them understand there are different things they can do than with a standard type of depression,” Everett says.

The symptoms of SAD include lethargy, depression, sadness, despair, irritability, sleepiness, inability to concentrate, lack of energy or motivation, cravings for sweets and weight gain. SAD can rob people of the energy and motivation to work. Some seek counseling or take antidepressants. The majority of people with symptoms of SAD, however, benefit from non-medical treatment.

“We clinicians always start with the sensible things before we haul out the big guns,” says Everett. These non-medical interventions can help:

  • Get active. Exercise helps with any kind of mild depression and can be as effective as medication. Besides boosting our energy and serotonin levels, exercise keeps us warm!
  • Get outside. Sunlight is what the body craves. Exercising outside helps, even on overcast days, so think of that when planning an exercise routine. Walking, skiing, ice-skating and other outdoor winter sports help make winter fun instead of something to dread.
  • Bring the light to you. Using full-spectrum light to simulate sunlight, light therapy (in the form of a light box, desktop lamp, visor or a unit worn on the head) has an anti-depressant effect in 70 per cent of people with SAD. Most feel better within two weeks.
  • Or escape… if you can. Everett is the first to admit she is among the many Canadians who practice “snowbirds’ revenge” by vacationing in a tropical climate. A good dose of the real, hot sun is sure to help.

Anyone with greater than mild symptoms of depression, regardless of season, should not hesitate to seek help. And remember, SAD can be conquered, and summer will return.

Michelle Morra-Carlisle has written professionally for almost 20 years, at a federal government agency, for a trade magazine publisher and most recently as a freelancer. She enjoys the ever-changing nature of freelance work and the variety of topics she gets to cover - from jewellery design to schizophrenia - and has won several awards for her articles. Michelle is especially pleased to be covering health, fitness and wellness for and says that with each article, she picks up valuable tips for improving her own health and lifestyle.