Turn on the lights!
When I moved to the Northwest 25 years ago, I was surprised by the short winter days. It got dark so early! I was ready for rain (after all, isn’t Seattle the rain capital of the Northwest?), but I was unprepared for the long dark nights that start in the late afternoon.
I found myself feeling groggy in the morning. I didn’t feel down, but it took me a long time to really wake up. I’m an early riser and waking up in a dark room was tough. I just didn’t want to get out of bed. And when I did, it took me a long time to get myself in gear. I guess someone like me invented the quadruple latte!
I did a little research and discovered, that like many individuals in northern latitudes, I was suffering from symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SADS). According to the National Institute of Mental Health, symptoms build up slowly in autumn (that’s now!) and early winter and can include increased appetite, weight gain, increased sleep, less energy, difficulty concentrating, loss of interest in work and other activities, and irritability.
Some researchers believe that the shorter days change our circadian rhythms (wake/sleep cycles) and affect the melatonin production in our brains. Our ancient cousins spent more time outdoors than modern North Americans. A lot of us become winter couch potatoes.
It’s estimated that 14 million Americans may suffer full-blown depressive symptoms (hopelessness, sad mood, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, and withdrawn behavior) while 33 million folks can have symptoms like mine--- declines in cheerfulness, productivity, and energy.
Those of us that suffer from this winter “energy crisis” find ourselves craving carbs and sweets. The net effect—added winter weight which also makes us feel even more down!
For the last twenty-four years, I have used a “Dawn Simulator” (I still have the same one I bought then), which helps me in the morning. Mine is a globe mounted on top of a clock. Thirty minutes before an alarm goes off, the globe starts to glow and grows bright, like the rising sun. When I open my eyes, the room is illuminated. Today, there are many models, with various bells and whistles that can add to your morning wake up. This “artificial sunrise” gives me some pep to my morning step.
A few years ago, I noticed that my energy level was declining in the late afternoon. I decided that I needed more light, and I purchased a “Light Box” that provides 10,000 lux of illumination (It’s bright!). Clinicians suggest that adults spend a minimum of 30 minutes in front of a light box, preferably in the morning. Check out Amazon for a look at the different models. Prices and sizes have come down. I have a larger one, which I like.
Research evidence suggests that starting earlier in the fall may prevent adults from developing more significant symptoms later on in the winter. I sit in front of my light box in the early morning, while I am reading the newspaper and eating breakfast. I also try to spend 30 minutes in the evening after dinner when I’m reading.
What else can Northwesterner’s do?
Go outside as much as you can during daylight.
This is obvious, but can be difficult. Many of us leave for work when it’s dark and come home in the dark. But take a short walk during lunch or instead of a coffee break. I have a colleague that points out— “There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear”. Pull out those rain pants and get going.
Numerous studies have documented the mood improving effects of regular exercise. They are true! Join a gym or buy some home exercise equipment. It makes a huge difference.
See your doctor if depressive symptoms get worse.
If the light doesn’t help, and your depression becomes disabling, see your doctor. Medications can also help.