Psych Gumbo: Seasonal Affective Disorder brings sadness, disrupts daily life as winter approaches

Holly Peek, Staff Columnist

The following is an opinion article, and opinion articles do not reflect the views of The Tulane Hullabaloo.

The days are getting shorter, the sunshine fades faster and the winter chill will soon arrive on Tulane’s campus. While the winter weather brings with it the anticipation of holiday vacations and festive cheer, it can also be a stressful time for college students as final exams draw near.

Unfortunately for many students, the darker fall and winter days can also trigger depression. Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as Major Depressive Disorder with a seasonal pattern, appears most commonly in the late teens and early 20s, with prevalence rates in college students ranging from 5 to 13 percent.

SAD symptoms occur in the late fall and early winter months and remit during the sunnier days of spring and summer. Symptoms of SAD are often similar to those of major depression, including feelings of sadness, low energy, losing interest in enjoyable activities, problems sleeping, changes in appetite, feeling sluggish or agitated, difficulty concentrating or having thoughts of death or suicide. Symptoms that are more specific to winter-onset SAD include irritability, tiredness, oversleeping, cravings for foods high in carbohydrates and weight gain.

The patterns of decreased sunlight can affect our own biological clocks and trigger these symptoms. The amount of melatonin released into our bloodstream is dependent on light. When we experience a lot of sunlight throughout the day, as in the spring and summer months, our melatonin is released at lower levels. When there are fewer hours of light during the day, as in the fall and winter months, our bodies release more melatonin into the bloodstream. Increased melatonin can cause a decrease in body temperature and SAD symptoms such as sluggishness and loss of energy level. Serotonin levels are also thought to be responsible for the development of SAD. 

Strategies that can be used to improve symptoms of these winter blues include outdoor and aerobic exercise. Aerobic exercises help alleviate symptoms because physical activity can raise serotonin levels and reduce stress. Outdoor exercise can be beneficial, even when overcast, to increase exposure to natural sunlight. If outdoor exercise in cold weather isn’t feasible, taking a longer route when walking to class can also increase sunlight exposure. 

Taking advantage of daylight hours by altering sleep patterns is essential. This can include waking up with the sunrise, avoiding napping during the day and keeping a regular sleep schedule, even on the weekends. Inconsistent sleeping hours and oversleeping can cause increases in melatonin levels during sleep, contributing to depressed feelings.

Symptoms of SAD can often be severe enough to alter a person’s daily life, despite incorporation of these strategies. Complications can include suicidal thoughts or behavior, social withdrawal, school or work problems and substance abuse. Students should know to seek help if symptoms persist. Mental health professionals can determine if medications, such as antidepressants, or other treatments, such as light therapy, are necessary. For more help or information, visit Tulane’s Counseling and Psychological Services.

Holly Peek, MD/MPH, is a third year psychiatry resident at Tulane University School of Medicine. She can be contacted through her website at www.psychgumbo.com or [email protected]