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So, How’s the Weather Treating You?

December 18, 2008

As the days have been growing colder and darker for me, I find myself vacillating between two states: hungry and sleepy. Just the other day, I bombed through lunch (spaghetti, mac and cheese, and potatoes au gratin — hooray for buffets) in full-tilt hungry mode, and almost as soon as I was sated, I slid rather quickly into sleepy mode. Naturally, I was quick to pin this on the weather, but then I got to wondering whether it was just me. In small talk with others, their responses to my query, “How’s the weather treating you?” have been along the lines of “Not bad,” and “Well, I got a new coat.”

Oh, no! I must have Seasonal Affective Disorder. Right?

Not even close. According to the Mayo Clinic online, what I’m experiencing is more or less normal. Yes, oversleeping and craving carbohydrates are on their list of symptoms for Seasonal Affective Disorder, but those are the two symptoms that are very common to experience at this time of year. It’s only in conjunction with other, more serious, more tell-tale symptoms, that the diagnosis can be made. I’m not depressed, hopeless, or anxious. My energy and sociability levels are normal for me. I haven’t lost interest in activities I like. My ability to concentrate and think clearly are unimpaired. I may have gained some weight, but in light of all the eating, well, I have to wonder why that’s listed separately rather than as a sub-point under the change in eating habits. I mean, you’d think they’d go together.

But I digress. (Besides, who am I to question the Mayo Clinic?)

As it turns out, there’s more to Seasonal Affective Disorder than just winter depression. There’s also summer depression, which manifests itself with anxiety, insomnia, irritability, agitation, loss of appetite (and resultant weight loss), and interestingly enough, a stronger libido. SAD is sometimes thought of as subtype of bipolar disorder, possibly because there are some people who actually experience “reverse SAD,” or seasonal mania.

Some researchers have found evidence that seems to confirm what we’ve been half-joking about for a while now, that winter-based SAD is a mammalian thing and that since humans don’t hibernate or otherwise switch gears come wintertime, we pay for it. Studies suggest that winter messes with our circadian rhythms and our melatonin and serotonin production. Shorter days and longer nights mess with our internal clocks, thus screwing up or circadian rhythms. Our bodies produce extra melatonin, the sleep hormone, in the winter, possibly as some vestigial “time to hibernate” signal. And sunlight has been linked to serotonin production, which means that darker days cause a drop in serotonin, a hormone that affects mood. This would explain why light therapy seems to help many people with winter-based SAD.

Anyway, I’m not letting the so-called “winter blues” get me down. If squirrels can fatten up for winter and look cute doing so, then so can I. Hey, in a drafty apartment, extra insulation can be a good thing. Besides, it’s nice and cozy curled up in bed under the blankets. And the really good news is that with the winter solstice fast approaching, we can start looking forward to longer days and shorter nights very soon.

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