On Winter: Who’s Afraid of the Dark?

I'm not afraid of the snow!

As soon as I decided to move from Las Vegas to Wisconsin, people starting warning me about winter. I bought coats, boots, and long pants. But, ironically, Wisconsin is having a really mild winter….I have only worn the snow boots a couple times.

However, winter in Wisconsin has not been easy for me. It’s not the cold, or the snow that I’m afraid of, it’s the darkness.  The short winter days, the overcasts skies (not today, yay!),and cold enough weather that you don’t want to loiter about outside with your skin exposed all contribute to a lot less sunlight exposure. When I started settling in to graduate student life (aka lots of time sitting in front of a computer) and the fall daylight started slipping away, I started to feel low in energy. I’m a morning person, and it was hard to wake up, hard to function on full power, hard to convince myself to get challenging things done. I diagnosed myself with sunlight deficit disorder.

For the past few years, I made my living hiking around the desert mountains on a team of botanists. We had so much sunshine, even in the winter, that we reduced our exposure religiously, with giant hats, spf 50, and long sleeves. Graduate school is a switch. My brain is enjoying the challenge, but my body misses the desert, and its sunshine. Sometimes, I feel like a lizard, like I need to lay on a rock in the sunshine to regain strength, even though as an endothermic mammal, I don’t actually need the sun’s rays to keep my body warm and functioning. However, the sunlight deficit disorder I thought I made up to make excuses for my lethargy, is actually real.

Officially, it is called Seasonal Affective Disorder, SAD, and you may have heard the common term, seasonal depression. I didn’t initially associated myself with SAD because I didn’t feel depressed or sad, just low on energy. But, as I began to research the subject, I realized that my symptoms were spot on for a minor case of SAD: increased sleep and daytime sleepiness, less energy and ability to concentrate in the afternoon, loss of interest in work or other activities, slow or lethargic movement, social withdrawal, and unhappiness or irritability. (Symptoms according to the NIH description)

Dr. Nancy Barklage, a UW Psychiatrist, told UW Health that about 25 percent of people who live in areas with short,cold winter days experience some form of SAD. About 8 percent of people have serious SAD, and another 17 percent have more minor symptoms.

Barklage recommends light therapy to her patients. Many researchers were initially skeptical of the therapy, but for a large number of patients, the light treatment has proven  as effective as anti-depressants. (Research here and here)

Light therapy works by sitting in front a light box for a period of time in the morning. The light box emits high intensity, almost full spectrum light. It’s similar to natural light, except without the dangerous UV portion of the spectrum. (Which is why light boxes are safe and tanning beds are dangerous). The light has to enter your retina, not just hit your skin, but experts advise against starting directly at the light. Instead, for example, they recommend keeping the light next to you on the table, shining on your face, as you read the morning paper. The amount of time needed in front of the light is relative to the intensity of the light, but ranges from 30 minutes to 2 hours. Doctors recommend starting with smaller doses, like 15 minutes, because the light can cause high energy mania in some people.(Specifics from the Mayo Clinic on light therapy, here)

Enjoying winter sunshine!

The idea is that the bright light helps reset our circadian rhythms, the body’s internal clock, letting us know that we need to be up and active, even if it’s still dark outside. That’s why the therapy is recommend for the early morning. Using the light boxes later in the day can lead to trouble sleeping. Researchers are looking for other physiological mechanisms for the light treatment’s efficacy as well, considering light sensitive hormones like melatonin, or vitamin D.

My roommate, Ethan, told me about the decision to purchase his light box last winter.

“Basically, I felt increasingly drained of energy. Even though I’m from Boston, the Wisconsin weather seemed much more severe. I was spending only 5-10 minutes outside during the day, and the rest of my time in an office space with no natural light. I was struggling to motivate myself to run, even though I am passionate about running. I knew people who had used sun lamps and had been relatively positive. I was also really skeptical that bright light shining onto your retina would actually make a difference. But, a few hours after using it , I felt energized. I think it was relatively effective, but I don’t know about long term.”

This week, he lent it to me. We’ve been having a more mild winter, and Ethan has been able to go out for runs during the day light more, so he hasn’t been using it. But, he told me that if the weather became much worse, and he started to feel lower energy that usual, he would go right back to using it.

Sunshine in the winter may help symptoms of seasonal depression.

I started my experiment on Thursday. I sat in front of Ethan’s Happy Light box for 20 minutes while reading some of the background literature on light therapy.  The only effect I noticed right away was some subtle eye-fatigue, and that my pupils became tiny. I still felt less than alert in my second class at 1pm. Today, I feel great, but it’s hard to know if it’s from the light box or the actual outdoor sunshine I felt on my 30 minute run. I’m going to keep using the box for the next week or so, and then I’ll post a follow up on my experience with the treatment.

So, do you experience seasonal depression symptoms? What do you do about them? Have you tried light therapy? Did it work for you? Please share your experiences!

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One thought on “On Winter: Who’s Afraid of the Dark?

  1. I’ve toyed with the idea of getting myself a one of these lamps….every year when spring rolls around, I realize how much greater my capacity for happiness/energy is than I had thought. While on the one hand, it’s a pleasant surprise, it’s really just self-neglegence.

    I might stop by to sit in front of Ethan’s lamp soon 🙂

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