Winters in Edmonton are notorious for being long and relentless. Edmontonians are a hearty bunch, always striving to embrace the cold rather than hide from the icy embrace that holds the city captive from mid-November until April or May. The city does a great job hosting festivals like Ice on Whyte and the building of the infamous ice castle. Most people still engage in tons of outdoor sports like cross-country skiing and snowboarding.

In spite of the persistent resilience in the city many of us are no stranger to the winter blues. Ever notice yourself feeling sluggish and maybe a bit cranky for no reason at all? Or that you’re feeling depressed?

The winter months are tough on all of us—some more than others of course—we go to the work in the dark, we come home in the dark and if we are lucky enough to catch any sunlight there is a significant chance that the air outside is so cold it hurts our faces. It’s an inhospitable environment to say the least. It’s no wonder that so many people flee the cold in the deep, dark winter months and head to more temperate climates south of the border.

The weather has a large impact on our moods. Some people are more vulnerable to the changes in daylight hours and temperature than others. If the change in your mood becomes noticeable and begins to interfere with your daily life you could be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Symptoms of SAD go far beyond the usual winter blues; often leaving sufferers debilitated and affecting their professional and personal lives. Symptoms of SAD include, but are not limited to, a change in appetite—craving either very sweet or very starchy foods, weight gain, decreased energy, fatigue, oversleeping, inability to concentrate, irritability, avoiding social situations, and feeling anxiousness or helplessness. If you think you might be suffering from SAD be sure to consult your doctor for a proper diagnosis. It can be difficult to differentiate between SAD and other forms of depression so your doctor may ask if your depression symptoms have gotten worse during the winter, or if they improved during the change from spring to summer and if this pattern has occurred for at least two consecutive years. They may also ask if you have family members who are affected by SAD.

Health experts are still not sure exactly what causes SAD but lack of sunlight seems to be the most likely culprit. The decrease in exposure to sunlight can upset your circadian rhythm—also known as the 24-hour cycles that are powered by your body’s biological clocks; which are regulated by light or darkness. An upset in circadian rhythm can upset your sleeping patterns. This explains why you might feel like sleeping at 6 pm during the winter months. Disruption in sleep patterns can exacerbate the symptoms of SAD.

Experts also indicate that there could be a decrease in serotonin. Which is the brain chemical responsible for regulating mood.

If you’re suffering from mild symptoms one of the most effective ways to combat SAD is regular physical activity. Exercise helps to stimulate the release of serotonin in your brain which positively affects your mood. The most effective way to boost serotonin in the winter is taking your exercise outdoors. During those brutal cold snaps exercising near a window would be a good modification. If you’re short on time or if your work out space doesn’t have windows a quick walk outside can make a world of difference.  

Light therapy is one of the most common treatments for SAD. There are two common forms of light therapy:

  • Bright light treatment involves placing a light box at near you at your desk or table while you go about your daily activities.
  • The second type is dawn stimulation; a dim light goes on in the morning while you’re sleeping and gets incrementally brighter. Mimicking a sunrise.

Light therapy is normally prescribed for 30 minutes to two hours a day. The amount of time prescribed will depend on how strong the light Is and whether or not you are brand new to the therapy. Your doctor may also recommend continuing therapy even if your symptoms begin to lessen in order to prevent a recurrence of the symptoms.

In some cases, a doctor may prescribe antidepressants to help ease symptoms.

As always, before beginning any treatment talk to your doctor so they can help you decide which course of therapy is best for you.