Light: nature’s solution to the winter blues

As winter approaches so does depression, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Seasonal Affective Disorder, a form of depression, is not uncommon, especially in Alaska. Decreased energy, fatigue, appetite change, difficulty concentrating and carbohydrate cravings are all symptoms of SAD.

Many people have these symptoms but don’t realize what is affecting them, Fran Victor, nurse practitioner for the Student Health Center, said.

“It is often hard for us to recognize mood changes within ourselves because there is no wound that we can look at. We don’t have pain that we are conscious of,” Victor said.

Victor gave an informative presentation on SAD Nov. 13 at the University of Alaska Anchorage Campus Center.

“A lot of people say ‘The cold doesn’t bother me,’ but it is not really the cold that has been found to have the impact,” Victor said.

It is the dark winter days that cause people to become depressed. She said that Alaska’s long winter season and northern latitude make it a prime spot for SAD and a milder form of SAD called winter blues. The farther a location is from the equator the less light that place gets over the winter and the greater the incidents of SAD.

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So face it, the odds are against Alaskans. However, there is a way people in Alaska can improve their odds. The solution is light. Victor said that human moods have been treated with light for centuries.

“Think about spring and spring fever…the increase in energy, and it is hard for us to sit in class,” Victor said.

In the spring, there is an increase in light and therefore an increase in energy. Victor said in the spring we have lots of energy but in the late fall we are begging for snow to brighten our world.

Snow can be beneficial during the dark winter months. Victor said one study showed Anchorage had less incidents of SAD than Petersburg, Alaska, even though Petersburg is closer to the equator.

“Perhaps we can say that this is related to the darkness. They have less snow than Anchorage and so there is no snow to reflect the light,” she said.

If the snow refuses to come, much like it has this winter, there is another answer. At an informative presentation, Joe Vergnetti, a pharmacy technician for Lake Otis Pharmacy, demonstrated the high intensity lighting available for treating SAD.

The Student Health Center at UAA has one of these lights for rent. The health center provides complete evaluations for students who think they may have SAD. If a student is diagnosed with SAD, he or she can rent the light. The people at the health center want students to know if the light is going to help them before they spend the money on it, because the lights are expensive.

There are other things students can do to avoid winter depression. Getting outdoors, keeping the blinds open, exercising and reducing the intake of sweets are all recommended by the Health Center. Victor also recommends sitting by a window while studying during the day to take advantage of what little light there is.