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Health & Spirit

'Sun and Aloha saved me': How Seattleites cope as our fall and winter days get darker

Christine Clarridge, The Seattle Times on

Published in Health & Fitness

SEATTLE, Wash. -- John Walker, formerly of Kentucky, made it through his first Seattle winter last year just fine, but recently he started feeling blue.

Suspecting a lack of brightness was the problem, he began taking vitamin D supplements and hung a small string of white Christmas lights in his bedroom, "so it would seem like the sun is rising" when he wakes, he said.

But it's not working so far.

"I don't know what happened; it feels like I just got hit by it really hard in a wave," Walker said. "It's hard to go to work in the dark and come home in the dark, and my body is saying, 'Oh no, we have to go through this again.' It feels like I'm having an existential crisis."

He is not alone.

According to Seattle psychiatrist David Avery, who's studied circadian rhythms--our "body clock" -- the body's temperature regulation and light therapy in the treatment of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) for the past 25 years, nearly all of us living here near latitude 47 experience at least a little seasonal depression that's tied to changes in seasons and, more specifically, the amount of light to which we are exposed.

 

Pacific Northwest residents see the sun rise and set in fewer than 81/2 hours by December. And what little daylight we get is often shrouded by clouds.

Avery said while there's an estimated 5 to 10 percent of people who are severely affected by the disorder, and a group that seems to experience "no seasonality at all," most of us fall somewhere in between.

We have less energy, sleep more, eat more, gain weight and have a hard time falling asleep and a hard time waking up during the fall and winter.

He explains: When light hits the retinas of our eyes, it stimulates certain receptors that send messages to the brain's hypothalamus, which is like the "conductor of a symphony," telling the body when to release hormones, such as melatonin and cortisol, and signaling when the body should cool down and warm up.

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