Gray skies can bring the winter blues

Wednesday, December 9, 2009 | 4:20 p.m. CST; updated 9:20 p.m. CST, Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Freshman Andrew Dolgin relaxes in his room at the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity house Monday underneath a lamp specifically set up to mimic sunlight. The lights help prevent the onset of seasonal affective disorder, a variation of depression that is aggravated in the winter months.

COLUMBIA — Two light bulbs on a tall metallic stand hang high over MU freshman Andrew Dolgin's bed. But they're not for reading; he relies on them to simulate sunshine.

"I'll put them on when I feel like I need it," he said. "Being in the dark has never been good for me."

Some call it the winter blues, others call it seasonal affective disorder, but Dolgin best understands it as the feeling he gets in the winter that makes him not want to get out of bed.

"Throughout the year I'm depressed at times, but it's a lot more prevalent during the winter," Dolgin said. "And everyone can tell it a lot more. You can just tell there's less life in me."

Dolgin said he was diagnosed with depression through a hospital outpatient program at the age of 12 and was also found to suffer from seasonal affective disorder.

And with a forecast for clouds and "warmer-than-average temperatures" this winter for much of the central and western U.S., people like Dolgin are bracing for a long gray season.

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, seasonal affective disorder or SAD  is "a pattern of major depressive episodes that occur or remit with changes in seasons," and winter depression is the most common type. 

It is characterized by depression, increased appetite — particularly for carbohydrates that can lead to weight gain — and excessive sleep, the academy's Web site said.

SAD is not a disorder in the sense that depression or bipolar disorders are, said Greg Boyt, director of the Daybreak Residential and Outpatient Center, a mental health treatment center in Columbia. Rather, it is an onset of such symptoms, and one that comes and goes with the weather.

"Technically there is no diagnostic category for seasonal affective disorder," Boyt said, holding the 992-page Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. "Of the depressive diagnoses, there are several different versions or sub-descriptions, and seasonal affective disorder is one of the more commonly used terms to describe a variation of a major depressive disorder."

Boyt said there is an increase in depression during winter because the coping mechanisms people use to normally deal with depression — such as exercise that releases calming endogenous opioids or endorphins — are not as easily accomplished in colder months. 

"Most folks don't get outside and go fishing, they don't go camping, they don't go jogging as much in the winter," Boyt said. So the list of things people can do to cope with the blues gets shorter, like the days.

Boyt also said levels of important neurotransmitters in the body such as serotonin and dopamine, which are recognized to have effects on mood and behavior, fluctuate with depressive symptoms.

According to the National Institutes of Health, exposure to bright light can increase serotonin levels in the body, which is associated with positive mood.

"Some of the research that has been done to form treatment for seasonal affective disorder has been the use of phototherapy: different types of light bulbs and light treatment," Boyt said. "It really closely correlates with being outside in the summer."

The use of light bulbs not containing full-spectrum light can be "very beneficial" from a psychological standpoint, Boyt said, but it's difficult to determine any positive biochemical reaction from them. While full-spectrum phototherapy has shown to produce positive results, he added, the research is a mixed picture. 

The NIH shows that exercise might as well increase brain serotonin.

"I'm really active, I've always played sports," Dolgin said. "I ran cross-country, played soccer, baseball, hockey, basketball. I mean, I've played it all. And during the winter ... it's much harder to find the motivation to go outside when it's cold."

"That might be a reason why I'm not as depressed during the summer or other months," he added. "It's a lot easier to get outside."

He's also found that music helps. "Two days ago I bought that," Dolgin said, pointing at a brand new iPod dock. "Music always tends to bring me up a little bit."

While being active is more difficult in less inviting weather, Boyt recommends that those who suffer with the winter blues try to:

  • get outside in the sun as much as possible, even when it's cold;
  • increase physical activity; and
  • eat a healthy diet.

"I would make these recommendations to anybody regardless of the origin of the depressive symptoms," he said.

Dolgin has his own method for staying positive in a sometimes depressing season.

"Just talking about your life seems to help a lot, getting things off your chest, and just staying around people that you know care about you," he said. "It just helps you feel a lot better about yourself when you're around people that you know want the best for you."

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Sarah Horn December 9, 2009 | 6:37 p.m.

Great story about something that affects many people. It would have been nice to know where to buy those special light bulbs, though.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro December 9, 2009 | 10:23 p.m.

@Sarah Horn:
The little light bulb over my head told me to steer you in this direction:

(Report Comment)
Full Spectrum Lighting August 6, 2011 | 9:04 p.m.

Check out more of the astounding capabilities of Full Spectrum Lighting products at

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