Darker days and longer nights can drain the enthusiasm and zest for life out of even the strongest among us. Many people experience the winter blues in some form or another. However around a 10th of most populations in northern latitudes suffer what is known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Seasonal Affective Disorder?
What is seasonal affective disorder and how does it cause the individual to suffer? Seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression that certain individuals suffer during a particular season, most commonly winter.
People suffering seasonal affective disorder find themselves becoming lethargic, lacking enthusiasm, depressed, and in bad cases becoming suicidal.
Seasonal affective disorder can start in the autumn months and lasts until spring. The worst reported months span between December and February. The dark colder months of the year where people tend to spend more time indoors.
Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Science is yet to pinpoint the exact cause of seasonal affective disorder. It is believed to be a combination of vitamin D deficiency and an imbalance in circadian rhythms.
In a sentence the circadian rhythm is a master clock within the human body that is largely governed by environmental cues such as the sunrise.
All of the processes within the human body are run on biological clocks. It’s cells, organs and endocrine gland have internal timers than inform them when to perform their duties.
The individual clocks regulating the separate components are controlled by a master clock that perfectly aligns the individual clocks so that the body remains in homeostasis or balance.
The master clock is governed by nature’s cycles such as the rise and fall of the sun. This is what is known as the circadian rhythm.
The circadian rhythm programs our physiological processes to conduct their activity with the precision of a medieval English bowman.
The human body is at it’s most effective when all it’s biological clocks reach equilibrium. To achieve this harmony it is important that we don’t neglect natures rhythms.
Our sleep wake cycle is disrupted during winter
For the majority of human history our sleep wake cycles have been determined by the rise and fall of the sun. Living in nature made it quite impossible to miss a ball of plasma rising into the sky.
At sunrise or an hour or so before humans naturally woke up with the rest of their surroundings. This was true even in agricultural societies all the way up into the industrial revolution.
Humans were woken by the sun or the cock but not by the mighty alarm clock.
At the time of sunrise the temperature is slightly warmer signaling the first biological clocks to activate.
As the sun begins to peak over the horizon its light signals the brain when to release cortisol and serotonin. These two hormones tell the body when to wake up and begin the day.
Post industrial societies offset the bodies equilibrium
Industrial societies are completely out of sync with nature. Instead being gradually awakened by the temperature of our environment and the light of the sun, we are sharply forced awake by harsh alarm clocks in our one temperature homes.
The equilibrium of our biological clocks is offset leaving us without the correct quantity of hormones to wake us up pleasantly and enjoy the day.
This is particularly true in winter (especially in the northern latitudes). Daylight saving time contradicts our biological clocks further.
We are awoken abruptly in the dark and then many of us spend the daylight hours working indoors. When it is time to clock out of our jobs it is dark again.
We have spent the whole day without receiving any direct sunlight. The sun is essential to our health. How then can thrive if we neglect this vital ingredient?
Our hormones, serotonin and cortisol are not released at their natural times, or in the incorrect quantities due to the lack of sunlight.
Instead our sleepy hormone melatonin is still coursing through our bodies and may continue to do so throughout the day.
The longer this imbalance of hormones occurs the worse seasonal affective disorder may become.
This coupled with a vitamin D deficiency due to lack of direct sunlight is a recipe for disaster. Especially considering vitamin D activates genes which release our happy hormones such as serotonin and dopamine.
Does nature have a solution to Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Our genes are still programmed to a life within nature. The further we deviate from our true path the more issues accompany it.
Although seasonal affective disorder is in part an inherited disorder it is not a life sentence which one cannot improve.
Spending time in nature has been found to help regular depression.
As seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression there is no reason why a walk on the wild side wouldn’t help.
Depending on where you live you may be able to get enough vitamin D from sun exposure, otherwise foods rich in vitamin D are the way forward.
Spending too much time indoors is the cause of a vast variety of health problems. In winter we tend to spend more time indoors as the darker colder months encourage us to seek more comfort.
Do not be fooled. We still need to get outdoors even if it is a little uncomfortable. The mind and the body will thank you in the long run.
Eat, Move, and be Merry
Winter not only encourages us to spend more time indoors but it also promotes a Santa clauses lifestyle.
The food we eat tends to be less than wholesome. We move less and sit around more.
Movement is a vital ingredient to lift the winter blues, as is a wholefood lifestyle.
The mind and body are inseparable. If one is in good health it promotes the other to be so also.
So when battling seasonal affective disorder it is important to keep your lifestyle similar to how it is in the summer.
Eat good food, Walk every day, and connect with others.
The house is not home, nature is home.
Sync your body with the sunrise
Waking up with the sunrise or an hour or so before will help regulate the sleep wake cycle, particularly if you head outside for some direct sunlight a while after you wake up.
Some modern day tribes have been found to take an extra hour of sleep during the winter months to naturally accommodate for the later sunrise.
Unfortunately the working week does not tend to accommodate our desire to wake leisurely.
I have found the next best thing to be a sunrise alarm clock.
A sunrise alarm clock aims to mimic the sunrise by gradually increasing its light intensity thereby slowly waking you up. I have found this one to be the best.
You are gently coaxed out of your slumber as opposed to being forcefully dragged.
The light helps to balance the bodies master clock making not just the wake up more pleasant but the rest of the day also.
Some people find it to be as effective as bright light therapy for treating seasonal affective disorder.
Others (a friend of mine included) find that a bright light therapy box such as this one, is the way to go. This is the most well known therapy for treating SAD. It is perhaps best to try both to see which one you prefer.
Of course these are just technological solutions to a problem which can be found for free in nature if you are living at the right latitude and have the available time.
Our biology is intertwined with that of the natural environment. To combat the winter blues and alleviate seasonal affective disorder we must align our lives with the evolution of our biology.
Best of luck friends