Lack of light makes winter difficult for victims of disorder

Colleen Winters

The winter months can leave Minnesotans starving for daylight. With just 10 hours of sunlight possible each day, the darkness can become overwhelming for some people.
Too much darkness can drive people to clinical depression, said Tom Beaumont, assistant professor and psychiatric social worker at Boynton Mental Health Center.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about 10 million Americans suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, a type of depression caused by the decrease of daylight during the late fall and winter months.
The symptoms of the disorder aren’t all that different from clinical depression, Beaumont said. The difference is that they have a seasonal and geographical component.
“It’s a bona fide depressive illness,” he said.
Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms include lethargy, a desire to sleep longer, diminished libido, a craving for carbohydrates that often results in seasonal weight gain, social withdrawal, difficulty concentrating, mood changes and anxiety.
A study by the Minneapolis Veterans Administration Medical Center found that, in addition to feeling depressed and moody, people with the disorder might have trouble detecting sweet, sour and bitter flavors as well.
A possible symptom students might suffer, Beaumont said, is a severe change in their grades during winter months.
“If a person flunks their classes in winter when they normally get A’s, that’s serious,” he said.
About 5 to 10 percent of people seeking treatment at Boynton can benefit from treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder, Beaumont said. The main treatment for the disorder is straight-forward: more light.
Light therapy involves daily exposure to ultraviolet-filtered, full-spectrum light. It is not yet known exactly how or why the therapy works, but the most popular theory contends light exposure affects the levels of serotonin — a nerve-messenger in the brain that helps control moods, appetite and sleep patterns.
Dee Ginthner, an assistant professor in the Department of Design, Housing, and Apparel, teaches a class in residential and non-residential lighting design. Ginthner, who has worked with people who suffer from the disorder, said the amount of light involved in treatments varies. Severe cases may need daily exposure to 20 times more light than would be absorbed through ordinary indoor illumination, she said.
Fluorescent lighting helps to get more light in everyday life, Ginthner said.
“If they have someplace where they sit regularly and read the paper, if they could use a fluorescent fixture they’d get more light,” she said.
Beaumont also suggested eating low-calorie foods in the morning and spreading meals out during the day to increase energy levels.
However, both Beaumont and Ginthner warned against self-diagnosis.
“If it’s fairly disturbing or disabling,” Beaumont said, “I would want them to talk to someone and get assessment and recommendations.”