Changing seasons can mean change in mood

Scarborough Hospital offers insight into Seasonal Affective Disorder, other health issues at weekly workshops

It was 2005 when Ananth Moorthy realized something was wrong with the way he felt as the seasons changed.

He didn’t know what the medical term was for what afflicted him, but he knew the feeling well.

Symptoms of SAD

  • Change in appetite, in particular cravings for sweet or starchy foods
  • Weight gain or weight loss
  • Decreased energy
  • Fatigue
  • Tendency to oversleep or difficulty sleeping
  • Difficulty concentrating or lack of motivation
  • Irritability
  • Avoidance of social situations and feelings of anxiety and despair

Source: Rachel Zeng, workshop on seasonal depression at the Global Community Resource Centre

“It was a year after I moved to California and I started realizing how — once it was a certain time of year — I started changing my habits and my mood,” he said. “My behaviour would change drastically over the three months of transition from summer to winter.”

Moorthy is one of the many people who suffer from seasonal depression, also referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

There are not only winter blues, but also summer blues according to social worker Rachel Zeng of the Carefirst Seniors and Community Services Association in Scarborough.

“Winter blues are actually a mild form of SAD, but it could get more severe,” Zeng said.

Moorthy, who moved to Scarborough over a year ago from Pittsburgh, Calif., still experiences the effects of the mild depression. He is 22 years old.

“SAD tends to affect people over the age of 20,” Zeng said. “For people at the age 50–54, the rate actually declines dramatically after that age.”

Symptoms of seasonal depression tend to start in September or October and end in April or May. Generally, the symptoms recur for at least two consecutive winters without any other explanation for changes in mood and behaviour, Zeng said.

“Often times, many of us can actually recover so after a few days of feeling down and when winter’s gone, we feel better,” she said. “But for other people, they might still remain sad for longer periods of time in winter and autumn and they are more vulnerable to a type of depression that follows a season path.”

Zeng, who also conducts informational programs and support groups, presented a workshop on seasonal depression at The Scarborough Hospital’s Global Community Resource Centre on Sept. 18.

According to her, more almost twice as many women as men are diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder — a 1.8 to 1 ratio — but men tend to suffer more severely.

Dr. Regina Liu, a psychiatrist at The Scarborough Hospital, said women are four times more affected than men are.

But the biggest problem Liu sees in patients with seasonal depression is they don’t recognize the seasonal pattern, she said.

“Seasonal Affective Disorder affects three to five per cent of the general population,” Liu said. “And Major Depressive Disorder affects 10 to 15 per cent of the general population.”

People who live at higher latitudes of the globe tend to experience SAD more often, Both Liu and Zeng said.

“Seasonal Affective Disorder appears to be more common among people who live far north or south of the equator,” Zeng said. “This may be due to decreased sunlight during the winter and longer days during the summer months.”

Seasonal depression is more related to exposure to sunlight rather than temperature, which is why prolonged periods of overcast weather can also exacerbate the depression, Zeng said.

Though there is no widely accepted internal physical cause for SAD, research is ongoing. There are two popular explanations, Zeng said, that are believed to be the main contributing factors of the depression: one is related to the biological internal clock and the other has to do with neurotransmitters in the brain.

“It is said that over thousands of years our bodies have developed a biological internal clock, so our body has tried to respond to the change of seasons and we have come up trying to become more alert and awake in the daytime and go to sleep in the darkness,” Zeng said. “That’s how our biological internal clock works.”

Practical tips on how to cope with SAD

  • Increase exposure to light
  • Increase the amount of time spent outdoors during the day, especially when skies are clear and sunny
  • Keep curtains open during the day
  • Move furniture so that you can sit near a window
  • Add more lamps and install skylights to areas where you spend your waking hours
  • Remain active and increase social interaction
  • Avoid eating high-calorie foods. Instead choose healthier comfort food in the winter, such as oatmeal
  • Share more news with family and friends to stay socially connected
  • Keep a regular sleep routine, such as  waking up at the same time even on days off from work
  • Learn how to manage stress using relaxation techniques
  • Wear bright colours during winter to boost your mood/energy

Source: Rachel Zeng, workshop  on seasonal depression at the Global Community Resource Centre

Since the invention of electricity and electrical light, daytime hours are extended artificially and that interrupts the sleep/wake cycle, she said.

“Another explanation is that it’s something to do with our neurotransmitters, the chemical makeup in our brain that (reacts to) reduced sunlight, causing a drop of the serotonin level in our brain, which causes mood change.”

Whatever the biological cause, seasonal depression signs and symptoms should be taken seriously, Liu said.

“As with other types of depression, Seasonal Affective Disorder can get worse and lead to problems if it’s not treated,” she said. “These can include suicidal thoughts or behaviour, social withdrawal, school- or work-related problems and even substance abuse.”

Moorthy has chosen to cope with his condition on his own and has not sought professional therapy to date.

“I would treat it in terms of whatever would make me feel good,” he said. “I would try to do things creatively or I found myself becoming more withdrawn.

“I find seasonal depression here (in Toronto) is longer (than in California), but I also try harder to find ways to cope.”

For more information on different health and wellness approaches, the Global Community Resource Centre at 3050 Lawrence Ave. E. is hosting community workshops every Wednesday in October from noon to 1 p.m.