“It is so dark when I get up,” complained my neighbor as we opened our doors to get our morning newspapers. I nodded, as it was hard not to notice that 6 am is as dark as 3 am these days. “But,“ she went on, “ it seems worse when we put the clocks back and it gets dark before I get home from work. Sometimes I never see the sun until the weekend because my office doesn’t have a window. I really get depressed this time of year.”
The quickly dwindling hours of daylight that characterize the late fall months arouses negative feelings in most of us. To be sure, the short days are associated in many parts of the country with the beginning of harsh weather and all the discomforts of cold winter winds, slush, ice, and too much snow. But people who live in the southern tier of states, who welcome the lower heat and humidity of winter, may also feel their mood changing when the sun rises later and sets earlier. Because unless one lives at the equator where the days and nights are always 12 hours long, days are shorter in the winter in the southern part of the country as well as in the north.
SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder, is the name given to a cluster of mood, energy and appetite changes that appear when the sun disappears. People become very tired and sleepy, feel depressed, apathetic, withdrawn and irritable, and experience intense cravings for carbohydrates. The intensity of these changes range from mild to severe and the symptoms may last from fall until late spring. What is so remarkable about SAD is that all the symptoms disappear as soon as the days become long again.
Since moving to the equator is not an option for most people, we are all faced with the need to get through these dark months and still maintain the quality of our work and personal lives. The use of therapeutic light has been successful in diminishing the severity of SAD. Specially designed light boxes emit a spectrum of light rays that mimic those of full sunlight. People are exposed to the light when they awake and after a few days, they report themselves feeling less depressed and more energetic. The use of these light boxes may be combined with antidepressant therapy for people whose major complaint is depression. But many people don’t even realize they are suffering from SAD. I knew a woman who thought her tiredness and excessive sleepiness were due to a prolonged bout of the flu. Others assume that the increased eating and weight gain that occurs every fall and winter is their body’s way of preparing itself for enduring the cold of the winter.
“My body needs an extra padding of fat, so of course I will eat more when the weather gets cold,” a client, who was trying to rationalize her seasonal weight gain, said to me. When I pointed out to her that the only time she was outside was when she walked from her car to her office or house, she shrugged and said that her body didn’t know that.
This is the time to take defensive measures to diminish the impact of seasonal mood and appetite changes on the quality of your life. So:
Get some sunshine, if possible, every day. Going outside at noon is optimal even on cloudy days because that is when the sun is highest. But if you can be in the sun early in the morning or mid-afternoon before it begins to set, your mood and energy levels will be stable.
Force yourself to do some physical activity. Research has shown that emotional and mental fatigue are diminished by physical activity. If you have a piece of exercise equipment at home, use it. And make sure it is not in the darkest part of the cellar. Exercise in a bright place. Take a walk at noon if possible. Consider joining a gym or a place like Curves where you can exercise quickly but intensely. As the winter goes on, your motivation will diminish but promise yourself that you will continue to move. You will be thankful you did, as the exercise will really maintain your energy levels.
Give in to your cravings for carbohydrate in a healthy way. A few years ago research pointed out that the brain chemical serotonin was involved in the symptoms of SAD. The lack of light diminished the activity of serotonin. It is believed that craving carbohydrate is the brain’s way of getting more serotonin made, as carbohydrate intake jumpstarts the process that leads to serotonin manufacture. However, this is not a license to spend the winter eating Oreos. Rice, potatoes, polenta (cooked corn meal) cereal, bread, rice, and pasta are healthy carbohydrates that will get the brain to make serotonin as effectively as doughnuts and potato chips do. One caveat though: Combining carbohydrate with protein prevents serotonin from being made. A good SAD prevention meal plan should be: protein at breakfast, protein at lunch, and from mid-afternoon on, carbohydrate. Vegetables and fruits can be eaten at any time.
Keep busy. It is very easy to fall into a hibernation-like state when the sun sets before 5 pm and venturing out in the dark and cold feels like punishment. But often being at home, especially being alone, exacerbates the fatigue, apathy and appetite of SAD. Join or sign up for activities that keep you occupied and stimulated. Do it with a friend or family member so you will have more motivation to leave the house and go.
And remember, by Dec 22 the days start to get longer.