Darkness on the Edge of Town

The Eskimos had fifty-two names for snow because it was important to them: there ought to be as many for love – Margaret Atwood.

Last Sunday marked daylight savings time where we spin the clocks back one hour. While I enjoy the earlier light in the morning, there’s something about the darkness emerging earlier at the end of my day that makes me want to go to sleep earlier.

When my morning alarm clock rings, I ignore my body’s hibernatory cries for more slumber and paw my way out of bed.  Jumping into my car after a shower and shave, I wheel out of my driveway and rocket to my local Starbucks to drink my daily joe.

Drinking my coffee, I look out the window.  There is a distinctive pallor that comes over our world at this time of the year; the grey of the parking lot seems a lot greyer and people wandering into Starbucks this morning glummer.  Folks in the northern climes with depression find this a trying time.  The darkness seems to reflect a more woe-be-gone take on life.

I felt a wee bit flat as I labored under the din of fluorescent lights in my office yesterday.  As I look up at these artificial bulbs, I imagined London Barristers of old working by whale oil lamps in white wigs trying to stay warm as logs burned in their stony hearths.  No squinting like nowadays, but the fake lights bounce off my papers rather than illuminate them and add a shine to my bald head.

There is a form of depression, Seasonal Affective Disorder or “SAD,” which swoops down on many this time of year.  It wreaks havoc with our circadian rhythms, our body’s internal clock, and knocks our sleep and brains off balance.

About 11 million people in the U.S. have a clinical form of this depression.  Another 10 to 20 percent may have a mild SAD and it’s more common in ladies than gents.  It’s also more likely to strike you – no surprise here – the farther north you live.  Just great – I live in Buffalo, New York.

Dr. Norman Rosenthal, SAD expert and author of the excellent book Winter Blues, talks about SAD in this short video:

The specific cause of seasonal affective disorder remains unknown. It’s likely, as with many mental health conditions, that genetics, age and, perhaps most importantly, your body’s natural chemical makeup all play a role in developing the condition. A few specific factors that may come into play include:

  • Your biological clock (circadian rhythm). The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may disrupt your body’s internal clock, which lets you know when you should sleep or be awake. This disruption of your circadian rhythm may lead to feelings of depression.
  • Melatonin levels. The change in season can disrupt the balance of the natural hormone melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood. Talk to your doctor to see whether taking melatonin supplements is a good option.
  • Serotonin levels. A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, might play a role in Seasonal Affective Disorder. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin, perhaps leading to depression.

Factors that may increase your risk of seasonal affective disorder include:

  • Being female. Some studies show that seasonal affective disorder is diagnosed more often in women than in men, but that men may have more severe symptoms.
  • Living far from the equator. Seasonal Affective Disorder appears to be more common among people who live far north or south of the equator. This may be due to decreased sunlight during the winter and the longer days of summer.
  • Family history. As with other types of depression, some studies have shown that people with a history of depression are more apt to have SAD.

There’s a bunch of recommended ways to deal with SAD; everything from antidepressants, fish oil supplements, light therapy and exercise.  I have taken antidepressants for years, I have a cobwebbed lightbox in my basement (should use it more often) and I exercise.  With the workout, I throw in 15 minutes in the sauna which raises my core temperature – I find that this helps a lot.  After all, the folks in Finland know a lot about dealing with the cold.

Stay warm, lighten up and make sure that your sadness doesn’t turn into SADness.

By Daniel T. Lukasik, 2018

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