Peculiar Pittsburgh

Yes, Pittsburgh is always gray, and yes, it’s affecting your health.

Blame it on the rain.

cloudy pittsburgh

There was a time, not that long ago, when Pittsburgh’s cloud cover was permanent and low to the ground and manmade.

That’s no longer the case, but clouds of the naturally occurring variety are still here, almost always, it seems — like a roach lingering in a diner, they’re not really bothering anyone, but they’re definitely affecting the ambiance.

Anyway, it’s not just a feeling, it’s quantifiable. In 2016, for example, Pittsburgh saw 203 cloudy days — or more than one half of the year under cloud cover — according to the National Climatic Data Center. That same year saw a 45 percent chance of possible sunshine, on average. And it was the same story the year before that, and the year before that, and the year before that. (Annual totals for 2017 were not yet available.)

While Pittsburgh isn’t hell with the lid off anymore, it’s now more like Phoenix with the blinds drawn.

A coal barge moves past a United States Steel Corporation coke plant on the Monongahela River at Clairton.

A coal barge moves past a United States Steel Corporation coke plant on the Monongahela River at Clairton.


Pittsburgh’s been ranked the second dreariest city in the country — tied with Portland, Ore., — and unironically dubbed the “Seattle of the East.” (Pittsburgh was also named one the country’s unhappiest cities in 2014.)

“We’re south of the Great Lakes,” said Lee Hendricks, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service here. “This time of year you have [air] flow that predominantly comes down across the Great Lakes, and while the air from central Canada is relatively dry, it picks up a lot of moisture off the Great Lakes. Or you have a situation like we have now, with a strong system from the Gulf pumping warm, moist air up.”

For what it’s worth, there’s also this very real story citing a link between deep-fried foods and cloud cover.

Either way, if you’re in Pittsburgh, it’s probably cloudy and/or raining. (Silver lining: Our garden-grown tomatoes are top notch — and excellent when deep fried.)

But beyond the atmospherics, all this cloud cover is affecting your body in ways you may not even be cognizant of.

“There’s been a general concern in Pittsburgh that we’re pretty much all Vitamin D deficient here,” said Dr. Gary Swanson, a psychiatrist with the Allegheny Health Network. “And one of the things associated with depressed moods is low levels of Vitamin D, and that does correlate with cloud cover.”

Here’s how it works: You take in Vitamin D, or more accurately its precursors, through foods or supplements or what have you. But you need sunshine — or more specifically the sun’s UV rays — to convert the vitamin to an active form your body needs.

“So the more cloudy it is, the less sunshine you’re exposed to and the more likely you are to be Vitamin D deficient,” Swanson added.

Anyone who’s lived in Pittsburgh or western Pennsylvania knows it’s cloudier here in the winter, an assertion that’s backed up by National Climatic Data Center reports.

But Vitamin D deficiency and Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, are two different things, although there is certainly the potential for some overlap.

As mentioned above, Vitamin D deficiency can be connected to a dreary climate and cloud cover and depression — it can also be connected to spending too much time indoors.

Video: Is Pittsburgh the ‘Seattle of the east?’ via WTAE-TV

SAD, meanwhile, relates mostly to the physiological and psychological impacts of the change in daylight hours between winter and summer and typically manifests in lethargy or sleep cycle disruptions as your body produces more melatonin — the so-called sleep hormone — than needed. (Bright light or sunlight suppresses the output of melatonin.) For most people this results in a phenomenon known as “dragging ass.”

But it’s also possible that Pittsburghers can be experiencing some combination of both Vitamin D deficiency and SAD.

“The closer you are to the equator, the less likely you are to have SAD,” Swanson added.

“Florida is one percent SAD. In New England or Alaska it’s 9 percent. Scandinavia has an even higher incidence of SAD. Pittsburgh is between New England and Florida and is probably closer to 7 percent.”

In a study of 147 Pittsburgh-area adults between the ages of 18 and 65 during the winters of 2011 and 2012, Pitt researchers asked about sleep patterns and wagered that about 750,000 people in the Pittsburgh metro area suffer from some form of seasonal affective disorder.

Swanson said this number seems wildly inflated to him, although his 7 percent figure, when extrapolated, would still mean that more than 160,000 people in the metro area are impacted — and that’s a lot.

With numbers like that, it was only a matter of time before the free market responded with these lamps, something called “SAD herbs” and a bevy of other products designed to help you escape the season-induced doldrums. In Norway and Scandinavia, home to some of the darkest winters on earth, The Atlantic reports giant mirrors, light-therapy clinics, and even positive thinking have been used in an attempt to overcome seasonal depression.

(Swanson said the lamps can work. SAD herbs? Not so much.)

Video: Norway – Seasonal Affective Disorder via AP


But the most likely scenario for Pittsburghers remains Vitamin D deficiency, according to Swanson. In fact, it’s believed to be so common in places like this that some insurers have begun to refuse to cover the costs of testing, believing it’s safe — and also cheaper — to assume a patient is deficient and to treat them accordingly.

So what can be done about it?

Well, you can start by taking a Vitamin D supplement and spending more time outside when it’s reasonable to do so.

When it comes to treating SAD, you can also scam your system.

“There are ways to trick your body into thinking the sun is up longer than it is,” Swanson said.

“You can take a vacation to Florida. If you go in January when it’s darkest, you can trick your body into thinking it’s spring again.”

Swanson said he’s had patients see results from trips like these but admits the evidence is, at least for now, largely anecdotal.

“Most of my patients said a day won’t do and that a week or more is best,” he added.

For those unable to make the trip to a sun-drenched surrogate city, there are also over-the-counter and prescription remedies, if need be.

The upside to all of this is that blah weather is better than terrifying weather, I’m sure we can agree, and Pittsburgh’s dreariness coincides with a lower chance of tornadoes and hurricanes than seen in other less-dreary places.

But weather has real impacts on our lives even absent calamity. Pittsburgh may be proof.