Winter is coming and so is Seasonal Affective Disorder

As the daylight dwindles each day and winter approaches in Alaska, some residents begin to feel the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.

Graphic by Michaeline Collins.

SAD can appear as early as in the fall with symptoms such as trouble getting out of bed, craving carbohydrates and low energy. SAD is a form of seasonal depression, according to The Mayo Clinic.

Other common symptoms of SAD range from mild to severe, include feeling depressed daily, losing interest in normally-enjoyable activities, low energy, inconsistent sleep, weight changes, irritability, general fatigue, trouble concentrating, feelings of hopelessness or guilt and even thoughts of suicide.

The National Health Service in the United Kingdom, a location known for its gloomy weather, says the ultimate cause of SAD is unknown, but some factors are suspected. Reduced levels in sunlight may disrupt a person’s circadian rhythm, which is the internal clock in the body that regulates sleep and wakefulness. The human body detects sunlight and is told biologically to either be alert or rest. The increased darkness in colder months can throw off this natural cycle and result in SAD.

Maria Arroyo is originally from Los Angeles but moved to Anchorage with her family a few years ago for work opportunities. She works three jobs at Ravn Air, The Westmark and UPS. She says it is a lot harder to get out of bed and go to work when the weather gets less sunny.

“It’s hard to get up when the sun is not even out. It’s like I feel exhausted all the time. The gray weather just makes you want to not do anything,” Arroyo said.

Despite its many symptoms, however, there are several ways to combat the effects of SAD.

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Lack of sunlight can be treated with lightboxes, or happy lights, that simulate daylight in cells in the retina that connect to the hypothalamus in the brain, which regulates circadian rhythm. This is called light therapy. It usually consists of 30 minutes in front of lightboxes, which have a light intensity that is 100 times greater than commonly used indoor lighting. The Mayo Clinic directs users not to look at the light directly and bask in it while doing daily activities, such as reading a book or having breakfast.

An alternative to lightboxes is a dawn simulator, which increases the light of a bedside lamp gradually, simulating the natural sunlight of dawn. The treatment is completed by the time waking occurs.

Susan Whitefeather is the director of counseling at the UAA Student Health and Counseling Center. She says light therapy can still be useful for students on a limited budget.

“Circadian rhythm is natural to humans and can be hard to regulate for Alaskans. One way to help with that is using daylight bulbs with a Kelvin rating of 65,” Whitefeather said.

She advises students to put the daylight bulbs throughout their home and light them for at least 30 minutes per day to simulate daylight. The bulbs are not as expensive as lightboxes or dawn simulators and can be purchased at local stores. Whitefeather says that going outside when there is sunlight, even overcast, as much as possible is also beneficial.

Whitefeather also stresses the importance of getting enough vitamin D during months with less sunlight. Another way to combat SAD is by taking vitamin D supplements, which help make up for the natural absorption of vitamin D from the sun. Supplements are widely available online or at local stores like Target and Fred Meyer. Certain foods such as salmon, milk, eggs, mushrooms and fortified orange juice are also a good source of vitamin D.

“[Vitamin D] is really, really important to not just prevent Seasonal Affective Disorder, but is also a nutrient that is necessary for all systems of the body to function properly,” Whitefeather said.

Whitefeather recommends students get tested for vitamin D levels at the UAA Student Health Center.

Exercise can also help decrease symptoms of SAD by increasing serotonin levels naturally. For dreary winter days, the indoor Seawolf Sports Complex provides exercise facilities, including an ice rink, two gyms, a basketball court and a pool.

The severity of Seasonal Affective Disorder depends on the person and sometimes therapy with a professional is needed. UAA resources for help with combating SAD can be found at the UAA Student Health and Counseling Center located in Rasmussen Hall. Its fall and spring hours are Monday-Wednesday 8 a.m.-6 p.m., Thursday 8 a.m.-1 p.m. and 2-6 p.m. and Friday 8 a.m.-5 p.m. If thoughts of suicide are a concern, reach out to the National Suicide Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255