As many as 10 percent of people suffer severely from seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, due to the lack of sunlight in our fall and winter months, according to Seattle psychiatrist David Avery. Our device-obsessed culture doesn’t help.
John Walker, formerly of Kentucky, made it through his first Seattle winter last year just fine, but last week he started feeling blue.
Suspecting a lack of brightness was the problem, he began taking vitamin D supplements and hung a small string of white Christmas lights in his bedroom, “so it would seem like the sun is rising” when he wakes, he said.
But it’s not working so far.
“I don’t know what happened; it feels like I just got hit by it really hard in a wave,” Walker said. “It’s hard to go to work in the dark and come home in the dark, and my body is saying, ‘Oh no, we have to go through this again.’ It feels like I’m having an existential crisis.”
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He is not alone.
According to Seattle psychiatrist David Avery, who’s studied circadian rhythms — our “body clock” — the body’s temperature regulation and light therapy in the treatment of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) for the past 25 years, nearly all of us living here near latitude 47 experience at least a little seasonal depression that’s tied to changes in seasons and, more specifically, the amount of light to which we are exposed.
Pacific Northwest residents see the sun rise and set in fewer than 8½ hours by December. And what little daylight we get is often shrouded by clouds.
Avery said while there’s an estimated 5 to 10 percent of people who are severely affected by the disorder, and a group that seems to experience “no seasonality at all,” most of us fall somewhere in between.
We have less energy, sleep more, eat more, gain weight and have a hard time falling asleep and a hard time waking up during the fall and winter.
He explains: When light hits the retinas of our eyes, it stimulates certain receptors that send messages to the brain’s hypothalamus, which is like the “conductor of a symphony,” telling the body when to release hormones, such as melatonin and cortisol, and signaling when the body should cool down and warm up.
When things work correctly, it’s a nicely coordinated system.
“The melatonin level raises just before one naturally falls asleep; in the middle of the night melatonin starts dropping off and the (body’s) temperature starts rising,” he said.
When changes in light interrupt our circadian rhythms, our bodies and brains stay warm at night, which prevents sleep, and they stay cold in the morning, impeding wakefulness. Our device-obsessed culture doesn’t help, as the situation is exacerbated by the plethora of daylight-mimicking blue light in computer monitors, phone screens and televisions.
“A lot of people with winter depression are trying to wake up in the middle of their biological clock’s idea of night,” he said.
Though common and treatable, SAD is not always recognized as a mental-health issue, according to Pam Sheffield, a family physician with the University of Washington Medicine Neighborhood Clinics who has written about the disorder.
“It often feels like a physical body problem,” she said. It isn’t until someone has experienced it as a recurring and yearly issue that they sometimes start to see the pattern for what it is, she said.
How we cope
Sheffield, Avery and people who’ve experienced SAD recommend spending time in front of light boxes that re-create the full spectrum of sunlight. Getting outside and exercising helps, too, according to Seattle Times readers who shared their stories with us.
Ericka Kendall, of Seattle, is a freelance musician who at 7 years old moved from sunny Southern California to the Pacific Northwest, where she’s learned to manage her seasonal depression with a multipronged approach that includes eating whole foods, taking vitamin D supplements every day, signing up for a half-marathon in midwinter that forces her to train during the darker months, and sitting with a light-therapy lamp for 20 to 30 minutes daily.
“I only started using one last winter,” she said in an email. “I was at a hardware store looking for a light fixture for my home, and was drawn like a magnet to this light emanating from the other end of the aisle. I walked toward it and found myself standing in front of a group of large and small therapy lamps, and must have stood there for several minutes before my husband came and found me. It was only then that I realized what they actually were, and I knew right then that the hype was real. I had such a sense of calm.”
California native Kathy Allen moved to the Puget Sound area for school and discovered once here she had a hard time getting out of bed.
She could not focus and was in a constant “state of drowsiness,” said Allen, now the alumni engagement coordinator for Pacific Lutheran University.
To combat SAD, she started taking vitamin D, eating a lot of vitamin-rich cheese and using a light-ringed alarm clock that gradually brightens starting 30 minutes before she has to get up.
“This has been the most effective trick for me,” she said, “and I love having my own piece of sunshine!”
Scott Brown moved to the Seattle area from Austin, Texas, about 12 years ago and initially felt pretty smug that the infamous Pacific Northwest winters didn’t seem to bring him down at all.
But then he started noticing that he was getting sick more often and taking longer to recover. He began to be depressed and fell off his exercise routine.
“Just this year I realized SAD might be an issue because when the weather suddenly changed about a month ago to fall weather, almost immediately I started getting noticeably tired in the afternoons again.
“I bought the Amazon-recommended SAD light for $100 and started using it daily, in the morning when I check email and read the news. It makes a huge positive difference. My energy and attitude are a lot more positive all day, and I don’t crash in the afternoon. … The light also helps if I use it in the middle of the day, before the energy drop happens.”
And then there’s Tim Apicella, who spent his first 48 years in Seattle before making a radical change.
“Rather than resort to depression medication or SAD lights, I decided I had to move away from the gray skies. I moved away from all my lifelong friends and family, and relocated to Honolulu,” Apicella said.
“What a difference! Sun and Aloha saved me.”