Here we are, less than a week away from the longest night of the year, and I’m feeling the strain. Come back, sun! Don’t leave us here all alone in the dark forever!
It’s primal, this feeling of abandonment and loss as the Earth tilts and turns the face of the northern hemisphere away from Sol. Somewhere deep inside, my cavewoman-brain fears spring will never come again. I fight depression and a tendency to do nothing but eat and sleep. After all, bears hibernate, why not people?
I know I’m not the only one that does this. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a real thing, recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, not as a separate disorder, but as a type (or “specifier”) of depression. Studies have shown that a percentage of the population (ranging from 1.4 percent in Florida to 9.9 percent in Alaska) exhibit the classic symptoms of SAD—depression in the winter months, with problems of oversleeping, lethargy, and a craving for carbohydrates. A slightly higher percentage of people in the U.S. overall may suffer milder symptoms of SAD, which tend to clear up rapidly if they are exposed to sunnier weather. (Of course. Who wouldn’t feel better if offered a two-week vacation in Cancun in the dead of winter?)
I have my own remedies for the relatively mild symptoms of SAD that afflict me this time of year. I get out in the sunlight (what there is of it) for some time almost every day—walking with friends is my favorite activity, but I have been known to play in the snow. And I do my reading under a full-spectrum light. The lamp I use gives me all the wavelengths of full sunlight, and at least 10,000 lux (the equivalent of being outside on a bright spring day).
Then, too, my office is on the south side of my house, built to take advantage of passive solar heating in winter. My cats agree it’s the best place to be on a sunny day in the winter time. (Which should encourage me to work, wouldn’t you think?)
Light therapy (as in exposure to a full-spectrum lamp) has recently been shown to be useful as treatment not only for SAD, but for other forms of depression, according to an article in the December issue of the AARP Bulletin. Says Norman E. Rosenthal, clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical School in Washington, D.C., the light works by stimulating the retina, which signals the hypothalamus of the brain, which, among other things, boosts serotonin.
Other studies have used LED lights, worn as a headset, to treat Alzheimer’s patients. Michael Hamblin, principal investigator at the Wellman Center for Photomedicine at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, reports that patients who wore the device for 12 weeks saw a dramatic improvement in their cognitive abilities, an improvement that diminished when they stopped wearing it. When they started wearing it again, they improved again. The scientists believe the light stimulates new cell growth and connections between neurons, a process called photobiomodulation. Though the experiment is in its early stages, they hope to expand its potential to the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, traumatic brain injury and other brain ailments.
So, until the sun begins its long journey back on December 21, remember that it is better to light a candle (or a whole bunch of them) than to curse the darkness. Let there be light!
*Information for this post taken from "Bright New Remedies," by Christina Ianzito, AARP Bulletin, December, 2017.
Nolen-Hoeksema, Susan (2014). Abnormal Psychology (6th ed.). New York, New York: McGraw-Hill Education. p. 179. ISBN 978-1-259-06072-4.