Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Fall is setting in, winter is a corner away. The sun leaves early and comes late, there’s frost on the windshield of my car and the defroster doesn’t work.

This is a bad time for a lot of people. Whether it’s the loss of light, the downward spiral of the temperature or the holidays galloping toward us, this is the season of lost expectations. Many of us haven’t accomplished what we wanted to during the year. We didn’t go skydiving, we didn’t end a non-working relationship, we’re still living in the one bedroom apartment over-looking the parking lot. We didn’t write the book, record the song, go back to school for our masters of doctorate, and we didn’t get around to painting the fresco. Hell, most of us haven’t even gotten around to painting the desperately shabby bathroom yet and, let’s be honest, it’s not going to happen in December because nothing good happens in December.

It’s not quite Thanksgiving, the Great America Holiday of Wretched Excess, and already the Christmas ads have hit the papers and TV. Catalogs are invading the mailboxes, promising the great joys of purchasing largely needless things—stuff, as George Carlin used to say. And, it turns out, one out of five Americans apparently suffers from the winter blues, and 17 million are affected by seasonal affective disorder. The term, now shortened to SAD, was coined in the mid-80s by psychiatrist Normal Rosenthal and his colleagues at the National Institute of Mental Health. There isn’t a clear cause for SAD, but there are many theories. A prevalent one is that serotonin, the brain chemical that helps us feel happy and satisfied, dips when there is no light. This would be particularly meaningful in a place like the DC area, where in the midst of winter there are 15 hours of darkness and only nine hours of daylight. Another possibility is that the production of melatonin, a secretion that tells our bodies when to sleep and when to rise, is also partially regulated by light changes.

Certainly, in the ancestral part of our brains, we are programmed to sleep more in winter than in summer. We want to hibernate, since the hunting and gathering season is over and we need to conserve energy. Our bodies haven’t changed much in tens of thousands years, but our social systems have. Most of us work year-round, and outside of farming communities, the call of duty has little to do with the seasons.

So here’s some advice if you suffer from winter blues. Exercise more and eat less carbs. Let more light bathe your home—keep the blinds open, go to Home Depot or Lowe’s and get a a couple of cheap floor lamps. Throw a party, have guests over, get involved in some sort of community activity. If you truly suffer from SAD, go see your doctor and get more drastic—a light therapy box isn’t cheap but it’s not much to pay to avoid depression. And remember, December 21—the shortest day of the year, is not that far away.

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