Autumn is Here: Time to Turn on The Lights
When I moved to the Northwest 21 years ago, I was surprised by the short winter days. I was ready for rain (after all, isn’t Seattle the rain capital of the Northwest?), but I was unprepared for the dark.
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 wake up. 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 effect 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may suffer full-blown depressive symptoms (hopelessness, sad mood, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, and withdrawn behavior) while 33 million folks can have symptoms like mine during winter months. They can have 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 bad!
For the last twenty years, I have used a “Dawn Simulator” (I still have the same one I bought then), which has helped 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. 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.
Last January, 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 is bright!). Clinicians suggest that adults spend a minimum of 30 minutes in front of the light box, preferably in the morning. Check out Amazon for a look at the different models. Prices have come down. However, I would recommend the larger sizes.
Start now. 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 am reading.
What else can Northwesterners 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 is 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.
Get exercise. 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.
If all else fails, try chocolate. (Just kidding).