Time Change - About Winter Darkness

With the clocks going back, millions of Americans will be heading home in the dark. Depressing?
Yes, but there could be a good reason for why we get the winter blues.

When Tomas had his first bout of SAD 20 years ago, the doctors said it was general depression.

But then his spirits slumped again the following winter.

Eventually, Tomas heard about seasonal affective disorder. He got a name for his condition, and began looking for ways to deal with it, that didn't involve an annual sojourn at a local hospital.

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is now a recognised psychiatric condition. Miserable weather, more colds and flu, , well, it's hardly a recipe for fun, is it?

And what the dark days do is mess with the balance of chemicals that affect a person's moods.

At one stage, it may have been advantageous to have been energetic and to require little sleep in the summer and to be anergic and sleepy in winter

The lack of decent daylight leads to a drop in the body's levels of serotonin and a rise in melatonin. Put bluntly, serotonin makes us livelier, melatonin makes us sleepy.

"How do birds know when to leave the country?" asks Jon Simmonds. "In the autumn, trees change colour, animals hibernate, yet we're expected to carry on as normal!"

It all adds up to millions of people spending dark, moody months suffering loss of energy, anxiety, irritability and social withdrawal.

But what must it be like for those who live even further north, where winter days are even shorter? Surprisingly, it's not nearly so bad.

Countries such as Iceland or Finland, which are endowed with snow and have little history of mass immigration, may not get many hours of sunlight, but chances are they'll get clear skies and plenty of light reflecting off the snow.

The rejuvenating effect of snow

It helps explain why folks find rejuvenation not only in winter holidays to far-flung sun-drenched beaches, but also from visiting a frosty mountain top for a week's skiing.

And the immigration? One theory goes that it's all about genetic build, natural resistance developed over the centuries. Once immigrants arrive from lands closer to the equator, not used to dealing with seasonal drops in sunlight, the resistance weakens, and the winter misery rises.

Dr John Eagles, from Royal Cornhill Hospital Aberdeen, England, believes evolution may also play its part. One indicator of this is that women of a child-bearing age are statistically at the highest risk of SAD.

In a recent paper on the condition, the consultant psychiatrist writes, "At one stage, it may have been advantageous to have been energetic and to require little sleep in the summer and to be anergic and sleepy in winter.

How to beat SAD

"This may have applied especially to women and their offspring, since it would be optimal to become pregnant in summer, resulting in childbirth in spring, when food is more plentiful and the weather is becoming warmer."

At least she'll be going home in the light

So if you've got the winter blues, and your teacher will neither sanction, nor finance, your three-month break in the sun, what options are available?

For mild symptoms, exercise is a key recommendation along with a decent diet. That means trying not to over indulge those chocolate urges. But if you must, go for dark chocolate.

An increasingly popular option is to sit in front of a lightbox for an hour or so a day.

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