Kicking the ‘winter blues’
Locals discuss causes of, remedies for seasonal affective disorder
Prior to working at Chico State’s Counseling and Wellness Center, Juni Banerjee-Stevens was a counselor at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Each fall semester, as the winter months approached, she would see an influx of students with symptoms of depression.
“We would start to get into whether this had happened to them before,” she said during a recent interview. “And they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, last fall this happened, too.’ We would put two and two together and notice that it was when it got darker that they would really struggle.
“When we’re trying to identify any mental-health concern, we’re always looking for patterns,” Banerjee-Stevens continued. “It’s not just so much that this person’s coming in with depression, it’s ‘What’s the pattern?’”
The clinical term for such recurring episodes of depression in fall or winter is seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, the classic symptoms of which include “oversleeping, daytime fatigue, carbohydrate craving and weight gain,” according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Many people may experience other features of depression including decreased sexual interest, lethargy, hopelessness, suicidal thoughts, lack of interest in normal activities and decreased socialization.”
In the book Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder, author Norman E. Rosenthal estimates that about 6 percent of Americans are affected by the most severe form of SAD, while about 14 percent suffer from a lesser form known simply as “winter blues.”
When Banerjee-Stevens made the move to sunny California, she thought encountering cases of depression seemingly related to the change of seasons would be more of a rarity compared to her time spent counseling students in the higher latitudes of Minnesota. Now in her second winter at Chico State, “I can say that as it’s gotten darker here, I’ve been seeing a very similar pattern,” she said.
“One thing we have to be careful of in a college setting is that fall is also when things start hitting the fan for students—the first round of midterms, relationship stuff starts to bubble up. There are a lot of other little situational factors you have to pay attention to.”
Indeed, since the symptoms of SAD often mirror those of nonseasonal depression disorders, properly identifying what triggered the individual’s depression can be tricky.
So, what about the winter makes some people feel low? Susan Bertozzi, a nutritional-therapy practitioner at the Center for Emotional Balance in south Chico, explained that it’s not the cold weather. Rather, she said, SAD is tied to Vitamin D deficiency, which in turn can be the result of insufficient exposure to sunlight. When your skin absorbs ultraviolet light from the sun, she said, it produces Vitamin D, which plays a key role in the brain’s production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood.
Given sunlight’s role in serotonin production, it makes sense that SAD is more common in higher latitudes, during darker winter months, or even at certain times of day, Bertozzi said.
“For a lot of people, they’ll notice when it gets to be late afternoon or evening, they enter an unhappier time of day,” she said. “It really has a lot to do with the position of the sun in the sky and how much time you’re spending outside in general.”
Fortunately for those unwilling or unable to venture outdoors, evidence suggests light therapy is a useful means for combating the effects of SAD, and there are a host of products—from simple lamps to high-tech light visors—designed to do just that. (Go to www.needs.com and click “environmental equipment” to browse options for light-therapy devices.) Even better, make your own therapeutic lamp—all it takes are two or three 100- to 150-watt full-spectrum bulbs.
Bertozzi said about 30 minutes of light therapy a day—ideally, before 3 p.m.—is a good starting point. However, she cautioned that overdoing light treatment, either by using too strong a light or sitting underneath it for too long, can cause anxiety, irritability or eye damage.
Both Banerjee-Stevens and Bertozzi suggested that, before going out and buying an expensive therapeutic lamp, someone suffering from SAD should try what amounts to good advice for everyone: exercising outside.
“[In Chico], it’s easy to get outside and let some sunlight hit your retinas during the day,” Banerjee-Stevens said. “More and more, especially for mild and moderate depressions, all I’m reading [says] ‘just exercise’—just get out there and get that blood flowing.”
Bertozzi got a bit more specific, suggesting exercising earlier in the day to make sure you get a good dose of natural light. “Anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes a day could be enough to totally change somebody’s mood,” she said.
When exercise or light therapy doesn’t work, Bertozzi commonly suggests supplementing with amino acid tryptophan, which functions as a biochemical precursor to serotonin and is sold in supplement form under the labels L-tryptophan and 5-HTP. She’s found the supplements often prove effective in treating cases of depression related to low serotonin; however, it should be noted that clinical studies of the supplements tryptophan and 5-HTP are few and far between and potential side effects are largely unknown.
For those who prefer not to take supplements, tryptophan is found naturally in poultry, beef, pork, fish, eggs and dairy products.