The dark, cold days of winter often bring about the “winter blues” for many people. However, for over 10 million Americans, the drop in sunlight triggers a type of depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). As we pass the midpoint of winter, SAD diagnoses are spiking across the northern United States.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a recurring form of major depression that corresponds with the seasons, typically beginning in fall or winter when daylight hours decrease. It is believed to be related to changes in sunlight that upset the circadian rhythm and lead to a drop in serotonin levels.
Some common symptoms of SAD include:
- Loss of interest in activities
- Feeling sad, hopeless or worthless
- Sleep disturbances
- Changes in appetite and weight
- Difficulty concentrating
- Fatigue and low energy
These symptoms are similar to general depression symptoms but occur cyclically based on the seasons. For those with SAD, the symptoms usually start in the late fall and early winter months and go away during the spring and summer.
SAD Rates Rising Across Northern States
According to Dr. Norman Rosenthal, a pioneer in SAD research, over 10 million Americans suffer from winter-based SAD, with another 10-20% experiencing mild SAD symptoms. States in the northern parts of the country see higher rates given fewer daylight hours during winter.
Recent news reports from Michigan, Maryland, Ohio and other northern states indicate diagnoses of SAD are spiking right now compared to fall and summer.
State Estimated SAD Cases Percent Increase in Diagnoses
Michigan 1.2 million 35%
Maryland 850,000 30%
Ohio 1.5 million 20%
Table showing rise in SAD diagnoses this winter in sample states
Doctors say the spike aligns with typical SAD patterns as people struggle with “the winter blahs.” However, they also believe numbers are higher due to the exceptionally cold, snowy winter in parts of the country.
Why Rates Are Worse This Year
The upper Midwest, Great Lakes, and Northeast regions have seen record snowfall and frigid temperatures since December. These weather conditions mean people are going outside less and exposed to sunlight even fewer hours per day. This reduced sunlight exposure is likely driving an increase in SAD cases.
In Michigan, Dr. Shamiram Feinglass of the University of Michigan Health System notes sunlight exposure in Detroit is down 15% compared to last year. She states:
“The combination of more time indoors and darker winter days causes many Michiganders to develop symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, even those without a prior history of the illness.”
Additionally, vitamin D deficiency has become more widespread this winter, according to Dr. Teofilo Lee-Chiong, a SAD researcher from Philadelphia. Vitamin D regulates serotonin production helping mood regulation. Low sunlight reduces vitamin D levels in many people, contributing to depressive symptoms.
Surveys also show people exercising less outdoors due to the cold, another factor influencing serotonin levels and mood.
Overall, the excessive winter weather aligned poorly for those predisposed to SAD, driving an influx of diagnoses over the holidays and into January.
Treatment Options for SAD Sufferers
If you feel you may be suffering from SAD or winter-based depression, talk to your doctor or mental health professional about treatment options. Some of the main therapies for seasonal affective disorder include:
Light Therapy – Daily exposure to artificial bright light which mimics outdoor light. This helps regulate melatonin and serotonin levels.
Medications – Antidepressants and other medications that affect brain chemicals related to mood and sleep. These include SSRIs and bupropion.
Psychotherapy – Counseling and cognitive behavioral therapy to develop coping skills for dealing with SAD. Can help change negative thought patterns.
Vitamin D Supplements – Boosting vitamin D intake can alleviate mood issues associated with deficiency. Most people require 1000-5000 IU per day.
Exercise – Aerobic indoor exercise releases endorphins that can ease depressive symptoms. Even light exercise helps when outdoors isn’t feasible.
Lifestyle changes like sticking to a routine sleep schedule, eating a balanced diet, and introducing mood boosting activities like yoga or meditation may also help manage SAD.
Outlook for Managing SAD Going Forward
The good news is Spring starts March 20th this year, a welcomed shift after an extended winter for most Americans. The increase in daylight and warmer weather should alleviate SAD symptoms for the nearly 10% of the population suffering from the disorder.
However, doctors caution that early springs can be deceptive for those with SAD. Lingering cold temperatures and precipitation can still reduce motivation to spend time outdoors. They advise being proactive about light therapy and other treatments even as spring approaches.
Additionally, researchers believe climate change could make seasonal depression worse long-term. As fall-winter weather patterns become more erratic, daylight fluctuations may increasingly disrupt circadian rhythms for years to come.
While this year has posed unique challenges, individuals now better understand the impacts reduced sunlight has on their mental health. Doctors are hopeful newly diagnosed SAD patients will be better equipped to manage their symptoms in subsequent winters.
To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.