Depressed? Shorter days, less light could be the reason
by Joe Shreve
Sep 26, 2013 | 2257 views | 0 0 comments | 66 66 recommendations | email to a friend | print
An example of a photo-therapy light box.
An example of a photo-therapy light box.
Sunday, Sept. 22 was the first official day of the fall season, and while the days are still reasonably warm and sunny, the inexorable trudge toward winter is officially underway.

For some, that means looking forward to things like fall foliage, Halloween, pumpkin spice in everything and a host of winter holidays.

But, for others, the approach of winter can be the harbinger of several months of drudgery in the form of seasonal affective disorder.

According to the Mayo Clinic, seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that occurs at the same time every year. Most people with the disorder begin experiencing symptoms of moodiness and decreased energy in the fall and can continue into the winter months.

“It interferes with daily function over a period of time,” said Dr. Amanda Fargo, a Santa Cruz-based clinical psychologist. “The key thing is, it returns every year.”

Sufferers of seasonal affective disorder, she said, often experience a noticeable change in behavior — not unlike a major depression — as well as a gloomy outlook on life, low energy and motivation, listlessness, weight gain, and withdrawal from friends, family, and activities.

“It’s kind of like having depression, (but) just in the winter,” said Dr. Michelle Carr-Frahm, a Santa Cruz-based clinical psychologist. “It typically happens in places that have shorter days.”

According to Carr-Frahm, there are several theories behind the cause of season affective disorder — many of which tie directly into the interference in normal sleep patterns brought on by the lessened sunlight.

A deficiency of serotonin — a chemical the body produces for nerve and brain function — can be brought on by a decrease in sunlight, she said, and can negatively affect sleep, mood, and appetite. An imbalance of melatonin levels, brought on by the changing season, can have a similar effect.

“It’s a perfect storm for depression,” Carr-Frahm said. “The days are shorter and darker, so our bodies want to go to sleep earlier.”

She also theorized that seasonal affective disorder may be an evolutionary holdover from humanity’s hunter-gatherer days, when food was scarce during the winter months, and resulted in a slowdown of the metabolism — almost a pseudo-hibernation.

“Sadly we don’t get to hibernate in our caves because we have jobs,” Carr-Frahm said. “So people have to deal with it.”

According to Fargo, the first line of treatment to combat seasonal affective disorder is phototherapy, which usually consists of a patient sitting near a specialized lamp that mimics sunlight for approximately 30 minutes in the morning.

“It’s definitely more about exposure to light,” she said. “Light takes a couple weeks, it doesn’t relieve quickly.”

Carr-Frahm said that the most effective usage of phototherapy lights is to situate the lamp near the patient’s bed so it can be used first thing in the morning, as many patients describe inability to get out of bed as one of seasonal affective disorder’s symptoms.

She also said that once seasonal affective disorder has been diagnosed, then a patient can anticipate the condition’s arrival with the season change, and begin phototherapy before the symptoms begin.

“Best to use them before depression sets in,” Carr-Frahm said.

In addition to phototherapy, Fargo said, treatment for the disorder can include antidepressants and cognitive behavioral therapy.

“A therapist would work with a patient to identify self-defeating thoughts and convert them to something positive — spending time with friends, spending time outside, volunteering, finding things they like,” Fargo said. “Sometimes people definitely need some help when they get stuck.”

Carr-Frahm said that one of the biggest obstacles for those with seasonal affective disorder is thinking that it is something that needs to be endured, rather than treated.

“People dread it coming because they know its coming,” she said. “They get in this cognitive state that makes it worse.”

The other obstacle, Carr-Frahm said, is that people don’t realize that they have seasonal affective disorder.

“A lot of people don’t really know what’s happening,” she said.

- To comment, email reporter Joe Shreve at, call 438-2500 or post a comment at The information in this article is not intended to replace advice from your own health care professional. For any medical concern, consult your own doctor.

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