Exercise and getting outdoors key to fighting seasonal affective disorder

Dec 11, 2014

It’s been 30 years since psychiatrists began using the term seasonal affective disorder. As we inch towards the shortest day of the year, a lack of light can lead to what is a debilitating seasonal depression for some people.

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, about five percent of Americans suffers from this winter depression and another 20 percent have a milder form of this ailment.  

Syracuse University Psychological Services Center director Afton Kapuscinski says while there is some conflicting research about the cause, one thing is clear -- our circadian rhythm becomes messed up when fall turns to winter. That’s because as dawn comes later, hormones that maintain sleep stay in our system longer.

"And so what you can imagine is if you have more of those available, one of those is melatonin, which is produced in a gland in the brain. What that causes is someone to feel like they have less energy, be more likely to sleep longer or want to sleep longer,” said Kapuscinski. “And these things are associated with depression.”

Kapuscinski says when these feelings interfere with daily life, that’s the most severe form of seasonal affective disorder, and therapy is recommended.

Doctors can prescribe light therapy and exercise. Kapuscinski says for people who may have a milder form of the winter blues, getting outside in the light, especially earlier in the day, combined with exercise, can also help.

"I would say if someone was trying to manage their own winter blues, then spending time outdoors in the morning hour would be particular. And you could kill two birds with one stone, get the light and the exercise together.”