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Winter arouses seasonal disorder depression

By Ashley Luthern

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

During the winter, some people suffer from symptoms of depression that lessen as spring arrives and stay in remission through summer. For some people, this is a sign that they suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder.


Symptoms usually appear during fall and winter months, when there is less exposure to sunlight. Depression symptoms can range from mild to severe.

Common symptoms can include:


Lack of interest in normal activities

Social withdrawal

Craving foods high in carbohydrates

Weight gain


SAD has been linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain prompted by shorter daylight hours and a lack of sunlight in winter.

Melatonin (a sleep-related hormone) has been linked to depression, and is produced at increased levels in the dark. The main age of onset is between 18 and 30 years.


Increased exposure to sunlight, from taking a long walk outside or using light therapy.

Seek the help of a doctor.

Source: American Psychiatric Association

By Ashley Luthern


As the cold, dark weather tightens its grip on the Mahoning and Shenango valleys, some might be suffering from more than the usual winter doldrums.

Seasonal Affective Disorder, or Seasonal Affective Depression, is similar to regular depression except it has time requirements. About 5 percent of Americans suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, and that average seems to hold true for the Youngstown area, said Dr. Charles Thorne, psychologist at St. Elizabeth Health Center.

Today marks the winter solstice, the first day of winter, when the Earth’s axial tilt is farthest away from the sun. It’s also one of the shortest days of the year with just nine hours and 15 minutes of daylight expected, said Brandon Swedlund, meteorologist with Weather Central.

At the beginning of December, day length was about nine hours and 30 minutes, he added.

Rates of SAD vary depending on day length. In Alaska, 9 percent of the population has SAD compared with 4 percent in Washington, D.C., and 1 percent in Florida, Thorne said.

“It is sometimes difficult to determine where it becomes a diagnosis and what is a bad day. If you’re in a depressed mood most of the day and don’t enjoy things, you might have depression,” he said.

Seventy-five percent of depressed people also have physical problems, such as insomnia, weight fluctuation and fatigue, Thorne added.

Thorne recommended people with these symptoms go to their family doctor and noted that depression is often left untreated, as only 50 percent of depressed individuals seek help. He said it sometimes helps to think in opposites.

“If you don’t feel like exercise, that’s when you need to,” he said. “If you feel like a drink, maybe you shouldn’t have one. I also think sometimes there’s a relationship between it and our unrealistic high expectations for the holiday season.”

Thorne said light boxes can be used to treat SAD and are available from $100 to $200 online. The light boxes are not household lights and differ from bulbs in tanning beds. He also said getting outside helps counteract SAD, and local park administrators said the number of walkers is holding steady during the winter.

The North Trail in Boardman Park is cleared of snow and in use all year round, said Daniel Slagle, the park’s executive director.

“Since the completion of our North Trail project, which took place in the end of August, we’ve seen a tremendous amount of new people walking in the park, and those people continue to walk even during the winter months,” he said.

Linda Kostka, marketing and development director for Mill Creek MetroParks, said the East Gorge trail near Lanterman’s Mill and East Cohasset trail are two of the most popular for winter walkers. A guided hike with a naturalist brought 25 people to park Sunday, she said.

“Be outside, exercise, eat sensibility and socialize, be around people you love,” Thorne said. “People suffer unnecessarily with depression. If they suspect that they may be depressed, they should contact their family physician.”