It’s time to turn the lights on
It’s that time of year again.
By the middle of October, we have only 11 hours of sun compared to 15 hours of sunlight in June. Every day until December 21st, the days shrink. It’s dark when I wake in the morning and soon it will be dark before I finish work at the end of each weekday. Welcome to fall and winter in the Northwest! Did I mention that it rains a lot here too?
When I first arrived here 27 years ago, I noticed in the winter that I felt sluggish and dull for several hours after I woke. I didn't seem to have the get up and go that I had when I lived in the Northeast. Even my double tall latte didn't seem to get me moving. I wondered what was wrong.
I did a little research and realized that I was suffering from seasonal affective symptoms. While I didn't have a full-fledged major depressive disorder (thankfully!), I did have some of the characteristic symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). These include low energy, fatigue, sleeping more than usual, weight gain, problems with concentration, overeating, social withdrawal (hibernating), and craving carbohydrates.
SAD is four times more likely to be diagnosed in females. Younger adults and those of us living further from the equator are more prone to this condition. In fact, in northern latitudes an individual is nine times more likely to suffer from SAD than if they live in Florida. We love our long summer days in the Pacific Northwest. But in the winter, the short, dark days can be challenging.
What causes SAD? We don’t know for sure, but we suspect that some individuals may have trouble regulating serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain. There is some evidence that individuals who suffer from SAD may overproduce melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep. And some researchers wonder if sufferers have less vitamin D.
There are several treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder, including medication, light therapy, and psychotherapy. While some researchers have wondered if vitamin D might be helpful, research studies have not demonstrated an association between improvement in SAD and vitamin D supplementation.
When I first realized I was struggling with seasonal affective symptoms 27 years ago, I bought an alarm clock with an attached light sphere. When the alarm is set for 6 a.m., the light grows in intensity during a 30-minute period before the alarm goes off. It mimics sunrise. When the alarm goes off — if I don’t wake up beforehand — the room is lit. I noticed improvement in my symptoms after a few days and have been using a light simulator product ever since. There are numerous models that can be ordered from online marketplaces. It doesn't matter whether you have your light on in the morning or at night—but 20-60 minutes a day can be very helpful. As our days shorten, early autumn is the best time to turn your bright light on.
During the winter, it’s also helpful to get outside and exercise whenever you can—rain or shine.
If you find yourself feeling depressed this winter, talk to your primary care provider about resources that can help you put a bounce back in your step.