Seasonal Affectedness Disorder gives students the winter blues

Living without sunshine in the Salt Lake Valley during the winter months can prove to be a tough challenge for many students.

Gray skies and short, dark days leave many people feeling somewhat less than perky. But, while some might be quick to discount these feelings as a passing phase, a very real condition at least partially explains these “down” feelings in many: Seasonal Affectedness Disorder, an ailment plaguing millions of people nationwide.

The disorder, commonly referred to as the “winter blues,” is a condition that sets in during the late fall months and usually lasts until spring.

The condition stems from a lack of sunlight, which in turn creates a lack of serotonin, the hormone that makes people feel happy and energetic.

Students in their late teens and early 20s are at higher risk for the condition, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Women are also more likely to be affected by the disorder.

The U’s Health Sciences Center said that symptoms include sleepiness,irritability, low energy levels, decreased sex drive, diminished concentration, and an increased appetite-especially for carbohydrates and sweets, like ice cream, that can lead to weight gain.

Daniel Adams, information director at Apollo Health Inc., said that people are chemically prone to depression if they don’t get adequate sunlight.

“Light literally blocks the chemicals that cause depression. When it’s dark, the body produces melatonin-if you’ve got too much melatonin during the day, you’ll feel depressed. Melatonin says, ‘You need to slow down, you need to eat.’ The right wavelength of light can immediately block melatonin,” Adams said.

The benefits of sunshine are immeasurable, according to Adams.

“The sun helps us to relax. Light produces serotonin and adrenalin, which make you more alert, alive and active. It also increases your memory-students should never study in a dark room,” Adams said.

The chemical melatonin makes the body feel lethargic and creates a desire to withdraw socially. Chemicals such as serotonin and melatonin are a part of the human biological clock that partially controls when we want to wake up and when we want to sleep. But, if they’re imbalanced due to a lack of sunlight, depression is much more likely to occur.

“At the internal center of the brain, in the hypothalamus, we all have a body clock. It literally tells your body how to feel. Sunlight is its most powerful cue, and darkness is the second-most powerful,” Adams said.

Crawling out of bed and getting up for a 7:30 a.m. class may be difficult for some, but it doesn’t necessarily mean those students are lazy, according to Adams.

“For someone who is supposed to feel chirpy at 7 a.m. when it’s dark, their body may be saying, ‘What are you doing? It’s sleep time.’ That same person may not feel fully awake until the sun is fully up-then their body will release the energy hormones that help to wake the body up,” Adams said.

During winter months in Salt Lake City, the lack of sun has been a great obstacle to feeling happy for many students. According to Adams, 5 to 6 percent of the population in Utah suffers from Seasonal Affectedness Disorder.

Brady Hildt, a U junior in sociology, said that he notices a difference in the way people behave during the winter and summer months.

“People are more fun and relaxed during the sunny months,” Hildt said.

Katie McMullin, 20, a U sophomore in business, also misses the sun during the winter months.

“My family and I go to California every February. It helps us escape the winter blues and have some fun. During the winter, it’s hard to live without sun,” McMullin said.

Taking a trip to a sunny locale may not be a bad idea, according to Lauren Weitzman, a psychologist in the U’s counseling center.

“Clearly, [the disorder] is a very real thing, especially during inversion and dark periods of winter. For those who feel down, going up into the mountains, above the inversion, can be very helpful,” Weitzman said.

Park City often has sunshine that doesn’t reach Salt Lake City and can be a nice escape, according to Weitzman, who also advocates exercise as an effective tool in combating the disorder.

“Get out and exercise. Get out of the muck in the valley. Find fun…activities that will help you to relax and have a good time,” she said.

Adams said that lifestyle choices have everything to do with general depression and the disorder, both of which have doubled since 1950.

Adams said special light therapy-making use of brighter-than-normal bulbs-can be useful in battling the disorder.

For those who have the winter blues, Weitzman recommends calling the U’s counseling center at 581 6826.

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