Maine’s dark side can trigger depression

It seems those of us who live at or above 44 degrees latitude are destined to “come to the dark side” between now and early spring.

Between the recent “fall back, spring forward” exercise in resetting the clocks and the ongoing run up to the Dec. 21 winter solstice, we are quickly reaching the point where both getting to and from work in darkness has once more become the seasonal norm. Maine will have fewer than nine hours of daylight on Dec. 21. But, cheer up. Parts of Alaska will have none at all.

A friend from away who moved here 10 years ago from a significantly lower latitude bought a house and, after getting settled, wondered out loud one day why there were lights in each of the closets. “Obviously,” a Maine native told her, “you’ve never spent a winter in Downeast Maine.”

While the prolonged darkness can be an irritant, it can also trigger a real health problem. Some small percentage of the general public — 1.4 percent in Florida and 9.7 percent in New Hampshire — deals with Seasonal Affective Disorder. Minnesota-based Mayo Clinic (which is also at 44 degrees latitude) defines SAD as a subtype of major depression, a seasonal variation that is related to the changing of the seasons. SAD symptoms generally start in the fall and continue throughout winter, sapping the energy and touching off the moodiness in those who are susceptible.

The symptoms of seasonal related SAD include some of the same symptoms associated with serious depression. Those include thoughts of suicide. The Mayo Clinic contends that common indicators of seasonal affective disorder may include depression, trouble sleeping, weight loss, poor appetite and agitation or anxiety. Women are more prone to winter SAD, although men tend to have more severe symptoms. Young people are more susceptible than the elderly, especially if they have blood relatives with a history of SAD or some other form of depression.

So it’s increasingly dark and dreary, and you’re feeling a bit blue. Now what?

Treatment for SAD ranges from light therapy and anti-depressant medications to psychotherapy. Called phototherapy, light therapy is a process in which those affected by SAD sit close to a special light box that casts a bright light that mimics natural outdoor light. While research on phototherapy is limited, the specialists at the Mayo Clinic say it affects chemicals in the brain related to mood and “appears to be effective for most people” in relieving SAD symptoms.

Those who use light therapy are encouraged to do so 30 minutes a day, as soon as possible after awakening, and with eyes open as research at Harvard shows the light affects brain chemistry through an anatomical connection between the eye’s retina and the hypothalamus, an area of the brain that impacts circadian rhythms. Activating the hypothalamus at a certain time every day can restore a normal circadian rhythm, banishing SAD symptoms. But Buyer Beware: these so-called “happy lights” aren’t approved, tested or regulated by the federal Food and Drug Administration and can range in cost from $40 to well over $200.

Light therapy technology aside, there are cost-free therapies that seem to be effective, including bringing as much natural sunlight into your home as possible by opening blinds and curtains, trimming trees that block sunlight or even simply sitting closer to bright windows. SAD research also suggests getting outside, even on cloudy days, preferably within two hours of climbing out of bed in the morning. Exercise helps, too, by relieving stress and anxiety that can trigger or enhance SAD symptoms.

And then there’s always Florida.

Tom Walsh

Walsh, a Gouldsboro resident, is an award-winning medical and science writer.

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