SIOUX CITY | Walk your dog in the sunshine or sit by a window and soak up some rays instead of hunkering down this winter. Your mental health will thank you for it.

About 5 percent of people living in the United States suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also commonly called the "winter blues." This form of depression, which is associated with changes in seasons, can leave a person feeling fatigued, irritable and lacking in motivation while craving carbohydrates. SAD can also wreak havoc on an individual's sleep cycle and lead to an increase or decrease in appetite. 

Experts say those living in Midwestern cities like Sioux City, with fewer daylight hours during the fall and winter, are at greater risk of developing seasonal affective disorder.

"The prevailing theory is that lack of sunlight affects serotonin levels, which are neurochemicals in the brain that help regulate mood. Lower serotonin levels tend to lend to depressed mood," explained Wade Kuehl, Mercy Medical Center's director of behavioral health. "In the winter, a lot of us are less active, so if your activity level decreases you also have less serotonin production."

Kuehl said going to and returning home from work in the dark, with little access to sunlight during the day, reduces one's vitamin D intake. Sunlight produces vitamin D, which acts as a mood regulator.

"Our vitamin D production is typically down during the winter months, especially the further north you get from the equator," he said. "There's a higher incidence of seasonal affective disorder in the greater northern hemisphere than there is as you get closer to the equator."

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Research has shown that, for many people with a history of seasonal affective disorder, treatment with a light box beginning in early fall can be useful in preventing SAD.

Kuehl said there are some things you can do to try to prevent SAD:

  1. Try to maintain typical hobbies and activities even when it's cold.
  2. Try to get outdoors and expose yourself to sunlight. Even while riding in a car or sitting by a window, you can soak up some needed rays.
  3. Eat foods that are high in vitamin D or take a vitamin D supplement.
  4. Socialize with other people. Socialization acts as a natural antidepressant.
  5. Intentionally increase physical activity during the wintertime. Studies have shown that exercise increases both the production and release of serotonin.

"We're not grizzly bears. We do not hibernate in winter," Kuehl said. "It's cold out there. A lot of us don't like it, but we still need to have a certain level of activity."

If you can't seem to stave off the symptoms of SAD, Kuehl said there are some treatment options you can try.

Antidepressants, he said, are commonly prescribed to treat any kind of depressive disorder if it gets severe enough. A light therapy box can also offer relief from SAD. This tool creates artificial light that replicates sunlight.

"They say you can do a couple periods a day of just 20 to 30 minutes," Kuehl said of the light therapy boxes, which can be purchased online for $40 or more. "These are not FDA-approved. They are not paid for by insurance."

According to Kuehl, cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the best treatments for any kind of depression. This type of talk therapy seeks to counter negative thoughts.

"A lot of times a combination of these treatments is most effective," Kuehl said. "Some people require a combination of medication and psychotherapy. They may need light treatment and psychotherapy for depression."

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Health and Lifestyles reporter

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