Itís a Sad, Sad Story

We all know that a weary, dreary winter day can impart that same mood onto us. How often have you heard about the winter blues? Even in summer, rainy days often make us sleepy and a little depressed and a string of rainy days can really make our mood take a down turn. In rainy areas like Seattle itís well known that depression is a big problem.

An article from a Seattle newspaper recently discussed the problems Californian transplants were having because of the cloudier, wetter climate in Seattle. Did you know that it could be due to an actual physical syndrome? There is a definite relationship between dark days and dark moods and it is called Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.

SAD effects some 35 million Americans to one degree or another. Related directly to the amount of sunlight a person receives, SAD symptoms can be as mild as feeling tired and sleepy on a wet day and as severe as feeling suicidal This is because sunlight stimulates the hormones that make us feel good. The less light a person gets, the worse he or she feels.

Symptoms include depression, fatigue, increased appetite and subsequent weight gain, irritability, and a general difficulty in coping with life. Not unexpectedly, symptoms begin to occur in the fall and continue through spring. Since winter is when the least sunlight and, often, the worst weather both occur, it is normal that SAD is at its worst then as well. This could be one reason why the winter Solstice has been a time for celebration for time beyond memory; the darkest day had arrived and things could only get better. For instance, the weeks around Christmas time are a peak suicide period. Gloomy weather compounds the emotional stress many feel in this period.

Hereís why this happens: The pineal gland secretes more melatonin (thatís a hormone that helps us sleep, among other things) in less light and production normally peaks in the middle of the night. Thatís perfectly logical since humans are mostly active during the day. In winter and on dreary days, melatonin production stays higher than it should during the day because there isnít enough light to counteract the process.

Even a well-lit room may not bright enough to offset an overall dull environment. The extra melatonin effects everyoneís mood and hypersensitive people react more than others do. In other words, it makes most of us want to hibernate but others feel like committing murder, suicide or both.

SAD diagnosis is not always easy (other parts of a personís life influence mood as well), but treatment is often simple. Light therapy is a common answer. Sitting under a strong light for a while every day may be all it takes to pull you out of it. Just a strong lamp does it for most and a light booth works in tougher cases.

A light visor that shines light into the eyes works and so does a computerized system that generates a daylight schedule (from dawn to dusk) would also work. In many countries where winter darkness is prolonged, light spas with whole rooms filled with bright, full-spectrum florescent lights are everywhere and used frequently. For most of us, these extremes are not needed.

You can deal with a mild case of the blues by keeping drapes and blinds open and sitting by the window. Keep indoor lights bright on gloomy days, and get outside at least 10-20 minutes every day to absorb natural daylight. If you live in a place that has unrelentingly dull weather, vacation somewhere sunny. These methods do not work for everyone, but they do for most of us. Those who do not respond have to get medical treatment.

Now you know what to do the next time you feel a case of the gloomy day blues coming on: get up, get out and get into the sunshine!

Written by Melody L. Higdon, 14 WS/DOPA