Michigan Winter 101: How To Lighten Up When You Feel SAD

Dec 7, 2017

The human body’s circadian rhythm – our inner clock -- regulates our sleep cycle, digestion and temperature.  All those functions can be heavily impacted by sunlight.  In the winter, people who live in the more northerly latitudes like Michigan sometimes feel a bit unhappy when the skies grow dark.  The condition is aptly named SAD: Seasonal Affective Disorder.

 


CHRISTY IDLE:

“Basically, when we look back and talk to the patient, we will recognize with them that they tend to get a little more down and depressed and maybe fatigued in the fall and winter months, and it just seems to kind of remit on its own in the spring.  And a lot of times, they’ll look back and realize that yes, that happened the year before and maybe the year prior.  That’s a pretty sure way to diagnose that they have a seasonal affective disorder.”

KEVIN LAVERY:

“So, if someone is aware of this year after year, do you find most people are able to sort of self-medicate, or do they need a little more help from the medical community to get them through those months?”

IDLE:

“I think help from the medical community is very valuable.  I unfortunately think that this is an under diagnosed thing.  I don’t think a lot of patients know about it unless they’ve have someone in their family that suffers from it, or they themselves already have depression, then they’re more prone to getting a seasonal component, making it worse.  But otherwise, for the general public, I feel like getting some help from their doctor, talking about it, getting some information is very helpful, where they can learn about if their symptoms are indeed more seasonal or not.”

LAVERY:

“Seasonal Affective Disorder wasn’t really identified and labeled until about the 1980’s.  For decades before that, people just felt sad and didn’t really understand why.  But we know why now, and it has to do with two main chemicals in the brain.”

IDLE:

“Correct.  It has to do with serotonin levels, and it definitely has to do with melatonin, and it’s then it’s directly related to our natural circadian rhythms.  We don’t get as much light in the winter months and it definitely has an impact on our brain chemicals.”

LAVERY:

“And here in Michigan, we’re almost halfway between the equator and the North Pole; we are pretty much (in Lansing) at 45 degrees north (latitude).  So, we’re not getting as much sunlight as you would in the tropics, obviously.”

IDLE:

“Absolutely.  This part of the country, Michigan especially, we’re known for having low vitamin D levels, which can play a part in depression and mood as well as Seasonal Affective Disorder because of the lack of sunlight that we have.”

LAVERY:

“Is light therapy really enough to do the trick, or are there sometimes deeper underlying issues with SAD that a high intensity light bulb or being outside on a nice day aren’t going to fix?”

IDLE:

“I think it’s very individual.  For some people with more of a minor disorder, just getting outside, getting exercise, being outside on bright days is enough.  Other people need more of the light box therapy, which really does work.  There’s some research behind sitting behind a light box every morning and how it helps depression.  Beyond that, there are people that need a combination: they also need to see a therapist, they need some psychotherapy, they might need some medication to rebalance some of those brain chemicals that are running low...or they might need all of the above.  It’s just very individual and it depends on the person and the severity.”

LAVERY:

“So if you live in Michigan or a northern latitude, this comes down to knowing that it’s coming in advance, understanding what’s going to be happening to your mood and taking some steps to head it off.”

IDLE:

“Correct.  Then you develop a good plan for the following years in terms of preventing this from happening again.”