It’s time to turn on the lights.
The days are getting shorter and, as of the end of October, we have about 10 hours and 15 minutes of daylight. At the winter solstice, we only see the sun for about 8½ hours. Yuck! It gets pretty dark around here. And that doesn’t figure in the fact that Seattle is the top city in America with the most number of cloudy days — 226 to be exact.
I moved to the Northwest 26 years ago in July. I fell in love with the long, sunny days of summer. The western sky was still glowing at 10 p.m.! But when autumn arrived, I noticed right away that the sun set a lot sooner. By November, the hours of daylight dwindled.
During my first December in the Northwest, I felt groggy and foggy in the morning. I looked like one of our gray days. I put on a couple of pounds from all the lovely scones I was eating with my two lattes a day. It all happened slowly. I really didn’t know what was happening.
I was experiencing symptoms of seasonal affective disorder or SAD.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, symptoms build up slowly in autumn (that’s now!) and early winter, and can include increased appetite, weight gain, increased sleep, less energy, difficulty concentrating, irritability and loss of interest in work and other activities.
Some researchers believe that the shorter days change our circadian rhythms (wake-sleep cycles) and effect the melatonin production in our brains. Our ancient cousins spent more time outdoors than modern Americans. A lot of us become winter couch potatoes.
It’s estimated that 14 million Americans may suffer full-blown depressive symptoms (hopelessness, sad mood, loss of interest in pleasurable activities and withdrawn behavior), while 33 million folks can have symptoms like mine — declines in cheerfulness, productivity and energy.
So what can Northwesterners do?
I went out and bought a dawn simulator. It’s a globe on top of a clock. The globe starts glowing 30 minutes before the alarm goes off and gets brighter over time. If the light doesn’t wake me up (which it almost always does), the alarm will go off. Waking up to the light seems to get me going, and I don’t feel foggy. I have been using the same device for 25 years.
Scientists think that the light against your eyelids stimulates the pineal gland in some way that helps you wake up. It works for me and for many of us who struggle with these winter symptoms.
Several years ago, I noticed that, even with my trusty dawn simulator, I was feeling low-energy later in the day. I bought a bright light (should be 10,000 lux) called a “happy light” and started using it. I sit in front of it for 30 minutes or longer per day, usually in the morning, while reading the newspaper. Sometimes, I will turn it on at night when I’m reading. I found that it helped. In fact, I’m sitting in front of it right now as I write this column.
I’ve learned that to get the best results with either the dawn simulator or the bright light, it’s important to start now rather than wait for the winter doldrums to set in. There are many choices for both devices that can be found online, and the prices have gone down. Make sure to exercise during the winter and get outside as much as you can. That can make a big difference, too.
If you find yourself falling into a deeper depression, be sure to see your primary care provider. Medications can also be helpful.
Paul Schoenfeld is director of The Everett Clinic’s Center for Behavioral Health. His Family Talk Blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/family-talk-blog.