On Point: Winter blues are real, from mild sun cravings to Seasonal Affective Disorder


    This light is one typically used for light therapy. Doctors recommend using a light for 30 to 45 minutes a day if Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms are mild. (WWMT/Randi Burns)

    Winter is one of the cloudiest times of the year in West Michigan, where it's common to hear someone say they have the winter blues.

    During the winter, a lack of sunshine and colder weather that often keeps people indoors contributes to mood changes. For some, a trip to a sunny location is a sure cure. For others, those mood changes are severe, leading to a mental illness known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.

    In a given year nearly 5 percent of the U.S. population experiences SAD, according to Mental Health America, a nation-wide nonprofit organization. Based on epidemiological data, people who live farther from the equator are more likely to have SAD. Also more susceptible to the disorder are young adults.

    “It can happen at the beginning of fall and may subside when spring comes or when daylight is more," said Dr. Mauli Verma, a psychiatrist with Kalamazoo Community Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. "Their mood is down, they have no desire to do anything, they feel lethargic, they don’t want to socialize, they don’t want to get out and they miss work days and they are irritable and cannot handle being around family matters and getting into conflicts.”

    Typically, people start experiencing SAD in the fall and the disorder continues through winter because that's when days get shorter and sunshine less frequent.

    West Michigan averages 64 days of clear skies annually, 96 days are a mix of sun and clouds and 205 days are cloudy. Meaning over half of the year is cloudy here in West Michigan. (WWMT/Randi Burns)

    That's particularly so in West Michigan, which averages just 64 days of clear skies a year. A mix of sun and clouds fill an average of 96 days a year, and 205 days a year in Michigan are cloudy. That means more than half of the year is cloudy here in West Michigan. Grand Rapids ranked sixth in cloudiest winters across the U.S. based on solar radiation rates and average percentages of daylight hours.

    The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a map of mean total sunshine hours across the United States. The map depicted the southwestern U.S. received the most sunshine with greater than 3,400 sunshine hours in a year. More than 39 percent of their year is filled with sunshine.

    West Michigan, however, received a mean of 2,201 to 2,400 sunshine hours annually, which made West Michigan's year only 27 percent sunny.

    Top five U.S. cities with the cloudiest winters. Rank is based on solar radiation rates and sunshine rates. Grand Rapids ranks 6th on this list. We broke down the average annual cloud cover for each city. (WWMT/Randi Burns)

    Verma said if the winter blues become a regular occurence, year after year, and if the symptoms begin to interfere with regular living, it might be time to seek professional help.

    “If it happens two seasons, two winters, in a row, it is something that needs to be treated and that’s when they see their primary care doctor. If it’s more severe they have to see a psychiatrist because they can get suicidal and they can get severely depressed," Verma said.

    Melissa Plair is a therapist at Family and Children Services in Kalamazoo and has worked with clients with a range of concerns including depression, anxiety and stress.

    “Most people who experience Seasonal Affective Disorder have another condition. That would be major depressive disorder or possibly bi-polar disorder, with a seasonal pattern of depression,” Plair said.

    Plair added there are many ways people can combat the affects of SAD.

    “What people can do to help with that is to exercise, that increases dopamine, which can help people feel energized. Taking care of oneself, eating healthier foods can help with that,” Plair said. “There’s also light therapy, which can be really beneficial for people and that helps replace the lack of sunlight because of the winter months. Those can be purchased at retailers in the area, online.”

    Verma added sleep is an important key to fighting these so called winter blues.

    “Daily sleeping at the same time, waking up, using your bed only to sleep, avoiding caffeinated drinks after lunch time, avoiding alcohol,"Verma said. "Avoiding your computer or TV or anything that gives you blue light like four to five hours before bedtime. Those are some of the things they can also do along with exercise.”

    If implementing these practices fails to help, Plair suggested therapy as a great way to combat SAD.

    “It can be hard to talk to people in your life about things that are really challenging and hard. Sometimes we’re not sure if people will understand and a therapist is there to help people learn to talk about what’s going on for them, to feel normalized and to gain some tools that they can use not only during depressive episodes but throughout their lives and across relationships,” Plair said.

    With spring beginning March 20, 2019, West Michigan might start to see more sunshine soon, but if symptoms of SAD start to impact someone's life routine and how one functions, Verma suggested another treatment of light therapy combined with an antidepressant, which can be started two weeks before the onset of SAD symptoms.

    "If its sub-syndrome or light, it's very mild, and it's not affecting functioning, then typically, if they take a trip to the Bahamas their symptoms will go away," Verma said.

    Top five U.S. cities with the sunniest winters. Rank is based on solar radiation rates and sunshine rates. We broke down the average annual cloud cover for each city. (WWMT/Randi Burns)

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