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Shedding Some Light on the Darker Season
by Prof. Rozalind A Gruben

There is still a chill in the air at dusk here in England. The sun hangs low in the sky, the trees seem to 'hold their breath' as the sun slides into her afternoon bed.

For some of you the days are warm and sunny but for many readers the dark and cold days are still your reality. If you are living in a part of the world where a lack of sunlight is getting you down - read on.

What do the winter and early spring months mean for you, the prospect of skiing trips, mulled wine, festive delights and log fires? Are your memories of March filled with lack lustre health, dry skin, shivering bathroom experiences and yet more gained weight as you fight against the cold? How you experience the remainder of this winter is up to you. All it takes is shift in attitude, a little bit of know how, a handful of preparation and a pinch of humour to transform your March experience into one of joyous vitality!

It has been scientifically proven that sunlight is as important to our health as oxygen and water. A lack of natural light causes biochemical imbalances in the hypothalamus (a small region of the brain situated between the two hemispheres). The hypothalamus is a key player throughout nervous functioning. It facilitates communications between the central and autonomic systems, as well as linking them to the hormone producing glands.

The human organism runs in accordance with a biological clock, which dictates different physiological functions at specific times during each 24-hour period. It is affected by light and is known as the circadian cycle. When insufficient levels of natural light enter the eyes during the daytime it disrupts these circadian rhythms. This is primarily because natural sunlight suppresses a hormone called melatonin, which has powerful influences upon mood and energy levels. It also affects the serotonin level, which is involved with functions of the nervous system, and regulates the appetite. For these reasons it is not uncommon for people to feel 'down in the dumps' during the winter with its short daylight hours and overcast days. The culmination of all these physiological disruptions can result in a variety of symptoms including:

Disturbed sleep patterns Difficulty waking up in the morning Difficulty staying awake during the day Apathy Lack of interest in social contact Lowered sexual desire Loss of self esteem Depression, guilt and despair Irritability Anxiousness Comfort eating Reduced metabolic rate Increases in body fat due to the above two factors

In the UK, one in five people experience profound bouts of insomnia, low moods and desires to comfort eat during the winter months. One person in every twenty suffers so badly that they seek psychiatric help and 50% of these experience suicidal feelings.

Records of people experiencing such severe winter doldrums go back well into our history. The US National Institute of Mental Health discovered theproblem in 1978, but it was not until the findings of a Dr Norman Rosenthal were published that it received recognition.

Dr. Rosenthal observed that sufferers seemed to respond to changes in latitude and longitude. In parts of the world where daylight hours were shorter symptoms became more severe. He reported that:

'The Washington patient who gets worse after a spell in Canada (further north) recovers and gets better after a period in Bermuda'.

Rosenthals findings were reinforced by a colleague of his at the US National Institute of Mental Health, Dr. Peter S Muller. Dr. Muller had one patient suffering severe symptoms who demonstrated a remarkable recovery after just two days in Jamaica.

In 1984 the disorder was officially recognised by the medical profession and given the name of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). In psychiatric terms 'affect' means mood. Affective disorders are a major category of illness whereby mood is affected. As with most mood related disorders, there exists a range of degrees from the subtlest of symptoms to severe manifestations of the problem. The milder forms of SAD are referred to as 'Sub-Syndromal SAD'.

Although SAD can occur anytime from September to April it is more prevalent during the months of December, January and February. Scandinavians have an even harder time of it than us with their shorter daylight hours, so planning a skiing trip to Norway isn't going to help! Medical professionals will only give a clinical diagnosis if the patient reported symptoms over three consecutive winters, having recovered during the summer months! So consider this before you rush off and proudly label yourself as a SAD sufferer, in the hope that your loved ones will whisk you off for a tropical winter break!

Psychiatric drugs have proven to be ineffective in suppressing the symptoms of SAD. The best you can do, other than move to another part of the world during the winter, is to maximise the amount of natural light you secure each day.

Light is not natural (full spectrum) if filtered through windows, spectacles or contact lenses. Remember that sunlight needs to directly penetrate the eyes to be effective. This also has implications for those who fear for their reputation should they appear in public without their Hollywood 'bins'! Wearing sunglasses when there is powerful glare, such as when spending time amongst snow or in certain driving conditions, is recommended. The inappropriate regular use of tinted eye cover as a fashion item is an unhealthy habit.

Tips for securing your sunlight quota:

1) Spend as much time outdoors as possible during daylight hours

2) Avoid unnecessary use of sunglasses

3) Re-arrange your living space so that rooms/areas that you use in the mornings face east and those you frequent in the evening face west.

4) Sit by opened windows when you are unable to be outside (an extra jumper makes all the difference)

5) Replace the light bulbs in your living space, and where possible work area, with full spectrum bulbs or tubes.

6) Avoid late nights and late starts in the morning; maximise your time spent awake during daylight hours

7) Use mirrors to create more light in poky corners and hallways of your living and work areas

9) Choose bright colours in your decor - avoid dowdy or dark shades

10) Seek out pictures of bright sunny landscapes and adorn your walls with them

WISE-UP TO MARCH

Our bodies are under constant attack from environmental pollutants and never more so than during the winter and early spring months. People's homes are reputed to be amongst the most toxic places on earth, especially as we withdraw into them away from the nip of Jack frost. The increase in pollution is due to a number of factors including the following:

Windows are not only kept shut but also often sealed to stop even traces of circulating air from entering the home or workplace.

Heating is turned on creating toxic gases

Greater quantities of hairsprays are used to control wind-blown hair

More winter than summer clothes require dry-cleaning which then hold powerful toxic chemicals in their fabric

The TV is on more of the time producing radiation and noise pollution

Laundry is hung up indoors instead of outside filling the place with fumes from washing powders and bleaches

To be winter-wise involves increased environmental awareness. If you want to build health throughout the spring months you can help yourself by:

1) Put on an extra jumper and fling open all the windows for at least an hour each day. Although the outside air may be polluted it is better to have circulating air than static air. Early in the morning is the best time, before your neighbours start up their cars and top-up the atmospheric pollution. 2) Rather than turn on the heating take bouts of physical activity throughout the day to raise your body temperature. It saves on heating bills, reduces pollution and keeps you fit! Running up and down the stairs until you've raised a sweat will keep you toasty for a considerable time afterwards. 3) Eat raw. You will save money on fuel, reduce toxic fumes in the home and provide yourself with superior nutrition. 4) Minimise the use of products such as unnecessary toiletries and cosmetics. Deodorant sprays are one of the greatest home-pollutants. Instead of hairspray go for a style of cut that falls into place easily. 5) Many clothes said to require dry cleaning would survive very well on a machine's gentle wool wash. Those that won't - give them to a good cause or reserve them for special occasions only. 6) Exchange time spent watching TV for snuggling down with a good book. By the end of the month you could have learnt a new skill, doubled your general knowledge, learned a language or taken giant steps forward in areas of personal development. 7) Use less washing powder than the manufacturers would have you believe is needed. You may be surprised what a small amount is effective. Use non-chlorine bleach and hang laundry outside whenever the weather permits.

REJUVENATE NOT HIBERNATE

Go out, go out I beg of you And taste the beauty of the wild. Behold the miracle of the earth With all the wonder of a child

- Edna Jaques

Lack of exercise, overeating and environmental pollution pave the way to sickness, lethargy and depression. Why not take a different path this spring? Plan time playing outdoors in the countryside or park. Take the kids, the dog or just yourself and have some adventures. Rather than shying away from March's cool ambiance decide to appreciate the beauty all around. Make it a rule to 'earn' each meal with physical activity. Just briskly walking round the block will promote your circulation, boost your lymphatic functioning, improve your digestion, better oxygenate your cells and rejuvenate your spirits.

A WINNING ATTITUDE

It is said that a miracle is simply a shift in perception. You have the choice to see this time of year as a time of gloom and doom, or you can look upon each day as a new opportunity to appreciate the majesty of nature's cycles. Get out there and create your March miracle!

Best Healthful Wishes,

Your friends at Healthful Living International

This article is courtesy of Healthful Living International and Rozalind A Gruben

 

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