The days are shorter, the nights are dark and full of terrors and you are left, once again, feeling SAD. Fret not, there is light ahead.

The turning of the seasons, while beautiful with vibrant leaves and the not-so-distant sound of holiday cheer, also casts some into a state known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or winter depression. The condition may leave its victims feeling listless, anxious or deeply in their feels, among other debilitating symptoms. In the Pacific Northwest, the mood swings to match the sky, making way for doom and gloom to set up camp.

To combat the mental rain cloud, local health professionals provide tips to keep your brain happy while living through the “Big Dark.” Here are some of the symptoms that could indicate SAD:

  • sluggish behavior
  • anxiety
  • brain fog
  • loss of interest in normal activities
  • changes in appetite or weight gain
  • the tendency to crave carbohydrates or reach for simple sugars for energy
  • noticeable muscle tension and frustration

Here comes the sun

As its name suggests, the disorder occurs seasonally, most often reported in the fall and winter months, when light is scarce and outdoor time becomes limited. Because of this change, our internal clocks can fall out of sync, causing disruptions and irregularities in body function.

“When the photoperiod, the time from sunrise to sunset gets shorter, the circadian rhythm tends to drift clockwise and individuals have a hard time waking up in the morning,” said Dr. David Avery, a Seattle-based psychiatrist and professor emeritus for the University of Washington.

Influenced by the light-dark cycle, our circadian rhythm controls our body clocks and repeats every 24 hours. Avery, who has practiced in Seattle since 1980, has published research on SAD, with a particular focus on the importance of sleep in regulating human function.

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“If we can control the timing of the light-dark pattern, we can improve the body clock timing, which, in turn, will improve sleep,” he said.

“During fall or winter, we’re waking up in the dark. Humans were not built to wake up in the dark,” Avery said. “When we are forcing ourselves to wake up before the sun, in effect, we are trying to wake up in the middle of our biological night.”

Diagnosing the problem

The disorder affects about 10 million Americans per year, the majority of whom are younger females. Being a woman is one risk factor, said Camelia Ades, an integrative medical practitioner for Holistic Health Seattle. A patient typically exhibits signs of SAD for at least two years before diagnosis. Her methodology is “a comprehensive way of looking at an entire person,” she says, from their mental health to physical and social factors. Living in Seattle, for one, can present its own challenges.

Location plays a role

“The higher the latitudes’ distance from the equator north or south, the greater the risk for developing SAD,” wrote Dr. Hyla Cass, a California-based doctor who published research on the disorder.

Seattle sits about 3,290 miles north of the equator, prime territory for the Big SAD, in contrast with warmer climates.

“The further north you are, the shorter the photoperiod during the winter,” Avery said, making northerners more likely to be affected.

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In Ades’ experience, she’s seen a higher prevalence of the disorder in Seattle transplants, particularly those from sunnier, southern states, who have not yet developed coping mechanisms through their natural environment.

“It’s the lower light intensity and fewer hours of natural light that’s impacting us, specifically the hypothalamus in the brain,” said Ades, regarding the cerebral structure that governs emotion and the nervous system, turning thoughts into physical responses.

However, Avery says he’s treated a number of lifelong locals who have always been affected by the seasons. It depends on the person.

Clouds can also play an important role, according to Avery. Other cities, like Chicago and New York, have cold, harsh winters too, but those regions have far more clear, bright days in the forecast, as compared with Seattle’s iconic gray. But even a cloudy day provides five to 10 times brighter light than staying indoors, Avery says.

Embrace the morning

It is important to spend time near a door or window with natural light first thing in the morning, Ades said. Without direct exposure to sunlight, our bodies become deficient in vitamin D, “the sunshine vitamin.”

The experts agree that establishing a morning routine helps the body’s rhythm thrive. Part of the brain’s chemistry relies on consistency and the benefits the sun can give us. However, for anyone without access to the fiery star in the sky, there are some illuminating workarounds that are proven success stories.

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Light up your life

If living circumstances prevent constant sunshine, one bright idea is to look into the light (or lamp). Many have suggested light therapy to lessen the effects of SAD, and both Avery and Ades are advocates for its use in treatment. The technology simulates sunlight, providing the mind with manufactured stimuli. Their advice? Invest in a light box or dawn simulator.

“There is one type that can be set up to simulate dawn over 30 minutes,” Ades said. “The light gets brighter and brighter, over the chosen time frame upon awakening, using the same spectrum as natural sunlight.”

The other is a light box, a device best used soon after waking or in the early evening hours.

“It puts out 10,000 lux, the approximate light intensity of a cloudy day,” Avery said. On a sunny day, between 50,000 to 100,000 lux is emitted.

“An ideal amount of exposure is 10-30 minutes daily,” Ades said. “Any more than that increases the risk of over-stimulation.”

Some good news for students: UW offers a checkout system for light therapy lamps in 30-minute increments, the recommended usage, at the Ethnic Cultural Center on campus.

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Beware the blue

With technology at our daily disposal, exposure to blue light and devices with screens has been shown to increase symptoms, causing trauma to our bodies from a lack of natural light.

“Our screens, computers and TVs, contain a lot of blue LEDs. It turns out that it’s that blue wavelength that syncs our circadian rhythm,” Avery said. “Often our eyes and brains get confused into thinking the sun is still up … people become sleep deprived.”

All told, there are a number of practices that can help keep the darkness at bay.

Tips for dealing with SAD

If your symptoms fit the bill for SAD, consult a health care professional and consider the following:

  • Use a form of light therapy
  • Get regular exercise, a natural treatment for depression (outdoor is preferable)
  • Eat healthier foods, like lean proteins and foods heavy in Omega-3s such as fish or soy
  • Avoid excessive coffee consumption as a source of energy
  • Decrease blue light exposure (limit device time)
  • Try amber-colored blue light glasses
  • Practice meditation and mindfulness
  • Connect with others and create a support system
  • Use calming essential oils (peppermint, lemon)
  • Take supplements (vitamin D, Rhodiola)
  • Keep alcohol consumption in check

Important: Ask for professional help if you’re in a really low place. Consult a doctor about medication and treatment options.