Fall arrives, and all seems beautiful. But as the season progresses and gets closer to winter and the days grow shorter and darker, some people find themselves with a bad case of the blues, popularly known as SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder. Read my SAD story, plus get the pros and cons of light therapy!
My SAD Story
It all began in late fall about ten years ago. Or perhaps it began in late summer of that year, as there was one thing that happened at the end of every summer, and had been happening since I could remember: that awful sinking feeling of dread.
Dread for what was to come. That’s right – Autumn. For me, Fall was the better name, as my spirits fell drastically.
You may be wondering what is wrong with someone consumed by dread because fall is coming. Who doesn’t like fall, with its bright, many-colored leaves that make that satisfying crunch crunch sound under your boots as you walk in the refreshing, crisp air, snuggled in your favorite sweater and coat?
Who doesn’t enjoy sitting next to a merry fire, sipping hot chocolate and gazing out the window at the lovely falling leaves as evening approaches, or sipping that hot chocolate with friends while sitting around a roaring bonfire and roasting marshmallows?
“I hate doing those things!” said no one, ever.
And, had that been what I had to look forward to each year, I’m sure I would have done so with thrilled anticipation. After all, as a child I did – once the horror of being back in school had abated to where I finally felt only a zombie-like numbness. But as late October rolled closer and the weekends approached, my older brother and I, nearly demented with the gleeful anxiety of our planned leaf-diving, could hardly wait until enough leaves had fallen from the giant maple in the yard.
At long last, the day would arrive, and together with Dad, we’d rake the crisp leaves into a pile and proceed to body-slam them, re-raking the pile when too many of them scattered, causing the pile to dwindle. Sometimes, my brother would even jump from a branch into the pile (Dad wouldn’t let me. Probably because I was a girl. *eye roll*).
But children grow up and reality sets in. In my case, the reality was the sad fact that growing up in the wettest, dreariest place in the lower 48 States meant that rare indeed was a fall not heralded without virtually constant downpours. Downpours that seemed to never. Go. Away.
Because honestly, those dry, crisp autumns when my brother and I jumped in the leaves were extremely few and far between. In my entire childhood, we got maybe four of those, and even then, all too soon the monsoons would come, pouring down rain for at least the next six to seven months.
Oh, and there was also one fall when I was in my mid-twenties, when my ex and I, along with our two little ones, went to my parent’s house and to our delight, saw that Dad had raked the dry leaves into a beautiful pile. Of course, we had to jump in them! I have a picture somewhere that Dad took of the four of us in the leaves. The kids were about 18 months and four. I was even thin and pretty (dear Lord, what happened?)!
Yet, even in those rare years when late October and early November have dry spells, the leaves around here aren’t exactly what you’d call colorful. The colors range mostly from light brown to medium brown, with a few dull yellow ones here and there.
As a child, teen, and young adult, I dreaded and hated rain, but other than occasionally whining about it, took it pretty much in stride. After all, Pacific Northwest autumns and winters were all I’d known. But somewhere in my adulthood, the animosity toward our wet weather began to grow like our infamous rainclouds, until my hatred of it, along with the dread, reached gargantuan proportions.
Even so, my initial dread of the coming fall would eventually fade into the background and I would resign myself to the reality of the next many months, stuffing my hatred of the constant grey skies and rain down into a dark storage room in my soul and locking the door. I’d shrug and bravely declare, “Oh well. It is what it is. We’ll survive!”
But after a lifetime of this, I suppose it shouldn’t have been surprising in that fall ten years ago, when I realized that the constant sleepiness that plagued me was more than the mysterious health issues I’d been battling for years (which turned out to be Lyme Disease, although I wouldn’t learn this for seven more years). Plus, what was for me the usual longing for a lost summer and irritation with the rain, had turned first into apathy and then into a feeling of hopelessness. It had become far more than a mere annoyance, or even suffering from a temporary case of the blues.
It was depression. Genuine, bona fide, miserable depression.
It dawned on me when my husband and daughter in law asked me if I was planning on going to the Christmas party and potluck that our church’s women’s group had each year. I told them no, I didn’t feel like it. It just didn’t sound like much fun at all, even though two months earlier when it had been announced, it sounded like a lot of fun. They tried to encourage me.
I finally agreed to go although I was far too depressed to cook anything to bring with me, so I bought a bag of tortilla chips and made some bean dip. Out of canned beans, but I doctored them up to where they made a tasty dip, and off I went. As it turned out, I did have a nice time, although the depression monster still whispered and muttered beneath the surface, as if to remind me that although it was being temporarily quiet, it had no intention of going anywhere.
And the next day, it jumped up and resumed its destructive activities. I could no longer pretend it wasn’t there.
Since I’d been fine until somewhere around mid-November, I guessed that what I was dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, and began to research. After reading up on SAD and light therapy, I purchased a small, portable blue light by Phillips.
I don’t know whether Phillips still does this or not, but at that time, my instructions included a link where I could do an online test regarding my sleep habits, symptoms, etc. and the severity of them. Based on my answers, the test results concluded that I had a mild form of SAD and should only need 20 minutes a day of blue light.
After a couple of weeks of faithfully using my light each morning, I began to feel better. Within a month I was back to “normal”. I used my light every year after that, from about mid-November through April, or even well into May if we were having a particularly nasty spring (I bet you can now understand why summer has always been my favorite season).
I stopped the light therapy a couple of years ago though, because thanks to a special form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that I started using, I no longer have SAD. I have learned to rewire my brain – it’s an ongoing process because my brain was a hot mess, and there’s a lifetime of rewiring needed! But I’m doing it a little at a time and it’s working.
Yet I’m getting ahead of myself. For now, let’s take a look at SAD and the most popular way to treat it.
When the days get colder and shorter and the skies grey – especially in the northern latitudes where the skies are grey much more often — it’s common for people to slow down, sleep a bit more and feel more tired than usual, despite more sleep. It’s even considered fairly normal for folks to come down with a mild case of the winter blues. For most people who experience this, doing something fun will chase their blues away and even perk them up somewhat.
This has probably been recognized as long as humans have been around to experience the seasons. In The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine, a treatise on health and disease that’s estimated to have been written around 300 BC, there is a description of how the seasons affect all living things. It is suggested that during the winter, which is a time of storage and conservation (and even sleeping) for animals, one should “retire early and get up with the sunrise… Desires and mental activity should be kept quiet and subdued, as if keeping a happy secret.”
But for some, that lethargy just won’t go away, and might even get worse. And what may have started as a feeling or attitude along the lines of “meh” grows progressively worse until they’re flung headlong into a sea of depression and misery. If left untreated, they may fall into this horrid sea every year around the same time. Even worse for some, the seasonal aspect eventually goes away altogether, leaving them chronically depressed year ‘round.
Please note: As with all my health-related posts, this is in no way intended as a means for self-diagnosis or medical advice. As always, if you suspect you or a loved one may have SAD or any other medical condition, please seek help from an experienced medical professional.
There are many theories as to why SAD happens.
- The shorter days mess with people’s circadian clocks (that internal biological clock that dictates when you feel sleepy, hungry, energetic, etc.)
- Some people produce more melatonin during the winter than summer – something many animals do as well.
- Some people’s eyes are less sensitive to light, so when the light fails early in the day, they can’t seem to synchronize their internal clocks to that of the outside world.
- Then there’s the theory called “phase-shift hypothesis” which in my opinion, is simply the first and third theories above put together. In a nutshell: Shorter days cause our circadian rhythms to get out of sync with the actual time of day, thanks to a delay in the release of melatonin. Levels of melatonin should rise to appropriate levels at night in response to darkness, which makes us feel sleepy. With the bright morning light (provided you don’t dwell in perpetual darkness like some of us), the melatonin levels are suppressed, as they should be. But for those whose circadian clocks are running slow, that level of melatonin hasn’t decreased. For these folks, when morning comes, even though the alarm is going off, their internal their clock is telling them to keep on sleeping.
But why should excessive sleepiness cause depression? One theory is that, when people are so tired all the time, they may then begin to think negative thoughts about how tired they are. This eventually leads to a sad mood, which then leads either to a loss of appetite or too much appetite, especially for those high-carb “comfort” foods.
If too much comfort food and too little exercise (they’re super tired, remember) then leads to weight gain, that tends to make the depression that much worse. They end up with a cascade effect, and the vicious cycle begins all over again.
Recently, there has been another explanation, based on insights into how small mammals and birds respond to changes in the hours of light. According to Daniel Kripke, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, when melatonin reaches that part of the brain called the hypothalamus, it alters the synthesis of thyroid hormones. Thyroid hormones don’t just regulate the metabolism; they regulate many other bodily processes as well.
According to Kriptke, melatonin continues to be released later and later in the morning as dawn takes her sweet time arriving. In the animal studies, the high melatonin levels present immediately after an animal woke up strongly suppressed the making of thyroid hormones. Anyone with hypothyroidism knows that low thyroid levels in the brain can cause changes in mood, appetite, and energy.
Among other things, thyroid hormone influences serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood. Some studies have shown that brain serotonin levels in people are at their lowest in the winter and highest in the summer.
As if this weren’t enough to depress a band of happy, playful ferrets, a few years ago Canadian scientists found that people with severe cases of SAD had bigger seasonal changes in a protein that brings the action of serotonin to a screeching halt, than others with no or less severe symptoms. Thus, they hypothesized a link between these cases of severe SAD and the neurotransmitter.
A fine explanation, perhaps – for those suffering from severe SAD. But what about everyone else? And what can we do about it, whether it is severe or not?
In the back of our eyes are a type of photoreceptor cells called ipRGCs, that seem to help synchronize circadian rhythms to the 24-hour cycle of light and dark. They are also connected to quite a few different areas of the brain, including some of the areas that regulate mood, as well as the sleep centers. And these little guys are sensitive to blue light.
So, exposing our eyes to blue light every morning has been proven to alleviate SAD, and I can personally attest to that. Alas, this particular silver lining turns out to have a cloud.
Studies are emerging that show that too much blue light exposure can lead to retinal damage and age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
Well, isn’t that a fine kettle of fish, as Grandma used to say. Now what are we supposed to do?
Which brings up another issue we must deal with – our electronics. Let’s start with those. It might seem as though if we suffer from SAD, all we need to do is spend a lot of time in front of a computer screen or phone. Which most of us do anyway, thanks to office jobs, gaming, and well, seemingly being unable to put down our phones for more than two minutes.
And we’ve all heard the exhortations to turn these things off at least one hour before bed, or better yet two, because if we don’t, all that blue light may well keep us awake.
And then, there’s sunlight. In the summer, anyway. The sun is, of course, the largest emitter of blue light. During the summer with those long, sunny days when we spend more time outdoors, it would appear that we’re taking in a lot of blue light. But we’re really no getting as much as it would seem, because God knew exactly where to place old Mr. Sun.
With electronics, we’re staring directly into that blue light with it being anywhere from a couple of feet to mere inches from our faces, all year long. Probably for far more time than we spend out in the sun a few months out of the year. Well, there ‘ya go! None of us should have SAD, right?
Apparently, it doesn’t work that way. Out of the thousands of human studies on SAD, I find it hard to believe that none of those test subjects worked in front of computers or used tablets or smartphones! And take a look at yourself and people you know – do any of you have SAD? Do any of you use electronic devices?
Let’s turn that cloud inside-out and get back to the silver lining. There are still ways to treat SAD without ruining our eyes and God forbid, without drugs (but while we’re on the subject of blue light ruining our eyes, you might want to start using glasses or computer screens that block blue light, if you don’t already).
There is a new, safer form of light therapy available — white light! When I stopped using that little blue light I mentioned earlier, I was initially going to switch to white light therapy.
But then I decided to do something completely different.
Stop in next week, when I’ll reveal how I chased my SAD blues away once and for all!