Ever wonder why that SEPTA conductor is a little crabbier during the winter months? Or why Temple students seem more anxious and depressed than usual once the sun starts setting at 4:30 p.m.?
It might not be just stress over final exams or the feverishness of the frantic holiday season. It could be a lesser-known physiological problem known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, which affects anywhere between 1 percent to 10 percent of Americans, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
It’s easy to dismiss a disorder that seems to come and go fleetingly with the seasons. Skeptics might say to just turn on a lamp and put on a coat if you’re depressed about the winter, but it’s not something to take lightly.
SAD can interfere with one’s professional and personal life during the fall and winter months with the same magnitude as clinical depression.
Geographic latitudes have a lot to do with wintertime moods associated with SAD, more so than the cold, unfriendly weather.
The disorder is diagnosed mostly in locations greater than latitudes 30 degrees north. At roughly 40 degrees north, Philadelphia, along with most of the U.S., is centered in the geographical territory of SAD.
During the winter, the northern hemisphere receives substantially less sunlight than it does during the summer. Less exposure to sunlight may affect the production of mood-stimulating hormones in the body.
The production of serotonin, a hormone linked to the regulation of mood, sexual appetite and sleep habits, decreases with less sun exposure. Melatonin, which regulates sleep cycles, is believed to cause symptoms of depression. It’s production increases in darkness.
It’s difficult to dispute the connection between sunlight and mood changes. Even before daylight-saving time ends in the autumn, daylight hours are noticeably shorter and cooler. After the last Sunday in October, the clock “falls back,” creating the desired effect of an earlier sunrise, but also an earlier sunset.
Clearly, the winter affects more than just people’s heating bills. Coupled with the weather, decreased daylight naturally cramps people into hibernation during the winter months, potentially contributing to hormonal changes conducive to the disorder.
Although diagnosis rates vary between researchers, it’s logical to assume that there is a correlation between the change of seasons and a general change of moods.
If decreased sunlight exposure is proven to be the main cause of SAD, then there might be some relief in sight for Americans with the disorder. In 2005, Congress passed an energy bill that will extend daylight-saving time by approximately 28 days a year.
Although daylight-saving time was implemented as a form of energy conservation, the additional extended daylight hours could effect on depression rates and even alleviate some symptoms of SAD. Only time will tell.
The holidays also contribute to symptoms of SAD. The stress of shopping, traveling and family arrangements are enough to drag down even those not prone to mood disorders. Cravings for carbohydrate-rich foods can lead to further feelings of fatigue and lethargy.
To alleviate some of the effects of SAD during the holidays, it might be best to travel to a warmer, brighter climate, where the disorder is practically nonexistent due to more daylight and warmer weather.
Or just bundle up and go outside for some exercise.
The combination of sunlight exposure and physical exertion can stimulate feelings of happiness. It’s a cheaper and more natural treatment than light therapy or hopping a flight to St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. A little exercise never killed anyone.
Some call SAD the “winter blues.” But if it occurs on a year-to-year basis, it could be a sign of a more serious issue, and the numbers and research show that these people aren’t alone.
Brian Krier can be reached at email@example.com.