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Shorter Days Part 1: Gear up for Less Light

Icelandic Glacier Trekkers

Icelandic Glacier Trekkers

Land of the Midnight Sun

I had the very interesting experience of visiting Iceland this past June.  Initially excited by the idea of having 22 hours of nonstop sunlight ( ! ), I quickly found that what my body was used to doing and the what the never-setting sun was telling me to do were at odds with one another:  I was completely revved up, poised to do and see everything, but at the same time also ready to crash.  I don't know that I'll be headed back for Iceland's winter and the opposite experience (about 20 hours of darkness and four hours of light), but either way, the Icelandic extremes underscored for me the fact that we are very much affected by sun light.  

Waning Sunlight at Less Extreme Latitudes

The official end of summer was three weeks ago and I'm sure everyone is noticing that  the days are getting shorter. We're at the beginning of the period (September/October to March/April) sometimes referred to as the SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) Months.  This is a good time to think about the effect decreased natural light has on us, and maybe do some planning.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

Actually, SAD is not a stand-alone diagnosis, but rather a subtype of depression.  It is specifically related to changes in the seasons.  If you're like most people with SAD, your symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody.     

For some people, the decrease in sunlight associated with the onset of fall and winter can prompt significant changes in mood, including a serious descent in to depression.  The majority of us may not have such profound negative responses to limited light, but a great many of us are affected nonetheless.  

"In the summer I'm always ready to go out on a Friday night and celebrate the start of the weekend, but in the winter, I can't get it together.  I get home, get into my sweats and chill out." 

"I don't know what it is, but my energy level drops.  All the treats over Thanksgiving get me started, but it feels like during the rest of the winter I can't stop inhaling carbs."

These are just two examples of how someone who may not be formally diagnosed with SAD,  nonetheless can be affected by shortened days and decreased exposure to sunlight.  Lack of energy, weight gain, carb cravings, and feeling the "winter blues" are a few symptoms that can signal a negative response to decreased sunlight.  To know if you formally meet the the diagnostic criteria for SAD, you should speak with a trained clinician.  

What Causes SAD

There are several theories about what causes SAD. One is that the level of serotonin—a mood-regulating brain chemical—may drop during the darker months in susceptible individuals. Another is that people with SAD produce more melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone secreted when it's dark. It's also possible that shorter days trigger a shift in SAD sufferers' circadian rhythms, which regulate the sleep-wake cycle.

In Part 2 of this series, I'll address approved ways of treating SAD symptoms and, generally, how you can avoid the "winter blues" even if you have not been diagnosed with SAD.

Coming next . . . Shorter Days Part 2: Blues Avoidance

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