During my two years on Baffin Island, up near Greenland, while teaching for McGill University, I both slept more and ate more during dark months where we saw no sunlight at all. Likely your shifts from light to dark are less extreme, but nevertheless, the brain’s reactions to daytime darkness cause intense problems for many people. Have you seen it happen?
If you feel more like a gloomy cloud than a ray of sunshine in winter, you’re likely part of an overwhelming group that lapses into depression on darker days. People around you may no longer seem to care. Hobbies that once held your attention after work, suddenly seem more like work. Sleep grows increasingly more attractive than a walk after dinner.
Many people feel a bit groggy on a cloudy day, but winter’s darker days take a far more taxing toll on people who suffer from seasonal affective disorder, better known as SAD.
Watch for warning signs. If you suddenly feel down, lack energy, or lose interest in people around you, you may be entering a dangerous mental roadway. You’ll likely find yourself craving comfort foods such a carbohydrates one minute, and then ready to sleep it off the next. Left to itself, SAD leads to feelings of hopelessness, triggers stress, and can even cause suicide.
Researchers continually look for more definitive roots of SAD, to explain the physiological changes that happen in human brains when darker seasons approach, or when gloom lingers. We do know there’s an increase of melatonin which is the brain chemical that causes sleep. While you want more melatonin at night, a healthy brain normally decreases its snooze-inducing levels with the morning light. Can you see the problems that arise in winter, for those who struggle to get going on darker mornings?
Brain chemicals can either come to your rescue or take you out. Serotonin, for instance, appears to decrease for SAD sufferers who really need more, and cortisol chemicals can increase, to torment those who are more prevalent to this illness. Since serotonin is the brain’s fuel for well being, you can also see why its lack of a darker day, removes the brain’s ability to cope.
Sunlight tends to trigger a better balance in one’s internal clock so that brain waves move faster at levels that help us to work successful, and shift to lower gears for rest and relaxation. Disrupted brain waves can leave you feeling helpless while people around you surpass you on every level, in spite of your fine efforts or unique talents.
Luckily, you can diminish SAD effects in several ways, and without too much effort:
1. Look for light in any form, even if it means installing better artificial light. Walk outdoors, add more light to your office, draw back drapes at home, sit in windows to read. Simply put, increase your light exposure whenever you can in a day, and your moods will often lift.
2. Exercise even if it means walking the stairs rather than taking elevators, or moving more as you work. A brisk stroll outside is especially helpful and can lessen the effects of SAD in tangible ways. Hop up and get a friend’s coffee, for instance, and serotonin levels begin to rise again.
3. Rewire your brain for well-being, remembering the wonder and good news discoveries of neurogenesis. The human brain can learn to yield more brainpower, and even replace wonko cells when we act more on its leads.
What would it take to add a few rays of light to your day, and transform your brain’s ability to capitalize on new dividends during a darker day?