CHICAGO — The Christmas lights have come down, and though the days are getting longer, it doesn’t feel that way when it’s dark on your commute to and from work.
Though the city has had some sunny and unseasonably warm winter days, residents throughout Chicago are still struggling to cope with the colder temps and lack of sunlight, oftentimes leading to changes in mood and energy levels. The condition, known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), is characterized by symptoms such as overeating, social withdrawal, and hypersomnia (sleepy at work all day? yep, that’s it), according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
But the city’s harsh winter months don’t have to be all gloom and doom, as there are ways to stave off symptoms of SAD and maintain energy levels, says Dorothy Sit, MD, psychiatrist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
“Typically patients experience recurrent depressive symptoms which onset in the fall or winter and spontaneously improve in the spring,” Dr. Sit said of the condition. “When people experience it, they may stop doing things they enjoy and give up activities that help promote health, like exercising.”
According to Sit, full-blown seasonal depression, also commonly referred to as the winter blues, affects people in northern latitudes more often. For example, SAD affects 0.4 percent of the U.S. population, while rates in Canada range between 1.7 to 2.9 percent, Sit said. People who encounter only a couple of symptoms may be experiencing a milder condition called subsyndromal seasonal affective disorder.
Don’t pack up and move to the Sun Belt just yet — there are ways to ease these symptoms. Proper diet and exercise are key components to maintaining health regardless of season, but making an effort to stick to routines and getting outside has proven benefits, Dr. Sit suggests. Avoiding excessive alcohol will also prevent disruptions to sleep patterns and nutrition.
“Though there’s this cultural influence with alcohol, it’s important for people to think about stepping back or reducing intake especially if people feel that it’s having an effect on their mood,” Sit said.
The use of artificial daylight lamps during Chicago’s overcast days can also help make up for the reduction in natural sunlight and reduce symptoms of seasonal depression.
“The use of bright light has been studied extensively and it certainly can be implemented for people who have subsyndromal symptoms,” Dr. Sit said.
Fortunately, there are numerous free or cheap public spaces throughout Chicago that residents can visit and explore to help offset the decline in outdoor activity and lack of lack of sunlight. Libraries, conservatories and forest preserves are top picks for keeping the mind and body active during the winter months. Here are just a few of our favorite places to visit during winter.
Garfield Park Conservatory
Located at Lake Street and Central Park Avenue, this sprawling conservatory features two acres of covered greenhouse space with flora from around the world. A warm and humid environment, the greenhouse mimics the effects of warmer climates. Not only is it a great destination to soak in natural lighting in a comfortable environment, but it’s also worth visiting just for the fresh air.
Harold Washington Library Winter Garden
The ninth-floor open atrium space in the Loop’s Harold Washington Library, 400 S. State St., designed to be a quiet and relaxing retreat for visitors. Capped with a dramatic glass roof, the Winter Garden is filled with natural sunlight during clear days, making it a perfect destination to dose up on vitamin D.
3 Arts Club Cafe
The former Three Arts Club of Chicago space is now a high-end Restoration Hardware furniture gallery and store. However, the building’s history lives on through the 3 Arts Club Cafe, 1300 N. Dearborn Pkwy., located under a glass arcade. Filled with lush greenery and ornate furnishings, the cafe is a cozy and inspiring space to help stave off winter blues.
Chicago Cultural Center
Narrowly escaping demolition during the city’s urban renewal efforts under Mayor Richard J. Daley, the former central branch of the public library system was restored and rededicated as the Chicago Public Library Cultural Center in the late ‘70s — and thankfully, the opulent space at 78 E. Washington St. remains free and open to the public to this day.
Navy Pier Crystal Gardens
Navy Pier’s Crystal Gardens, 700 E. Grand Ave., is a one-acre indoor space with a six-story glass roof and dozens of palm trees located in the center of the attraction. While it doubles as a private event space, the Crystal Gardens is a convenient option for downtown residents and office workers to experience a subtropical environment in Chicago.