“…we can’t live in the light all of the time. You have to take whatever light you can hold into the dark with you.” ― Libba Bray, A Great and Terrible Beauty
Last night was Halloween, also known as Hallow’s Eve or Samhain, the Celtic festival that bridges fall and winter, when people light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off roaming ghosts and the darkness. On State Street here in Madison, Wisconsin it was Freakfest. Before we went to bed, we turned our clocks back an hour; it was the last day of Daylight Saving Time (DST) and though we gained an extra hour of sleep, we begin living the mole life again.
I’ve always loved the changing seasons in Wisconsin, though as I get older my bones ache a little more in winter, I walk on the ice like a penguin to prevent falling, and I choose to live somewhere where I can park my car inside and not be responsible for snow removal on sidewalks and driveways. I grew up as a child living in a corner house and for many years shared my partner’s corner home. I’ve shoveled and blown my lifetime share of snow.
The biggest challenge in winter for many of us is the shorter days of sunlight. Most days I both leave for work and return home in the dark, spending the workday under fluorescent lights with limited access to direct sunlight. Weekends I bask in the sunshine of my home and spend some time outdoors to soak in the rays and Vitamin D.
I don’t intend to “make a mountain out of a molehill” but let’s take look at some of the aspects of the darkest season ahead of us, how it affects our well-being, and what can we do about it.
The Daylight Saving Time Debate
Before I went to bed last night, I turned back all the clocks in my house one hour, except those connected to the grid, the laptop, phone, and cable TV which automatically update. I reset the time on the watch on my wrist and the clock in my car. The challenge for someone like me who possesses some minor obsessive compulsive behavior is to achieve synchrony. In fact, after I thought I had changed every timekeeping device, and adjusted them numerous times so they all were in agreement, I discovered that I had missed the coffee pot when pouring my morning Cup o’ Joe. Good morning!
My internal circadian clock is pretty precise, so when DST begins and ends, it takes my body awhile to adjust. I’m naturally a morning person and an early riser. As summer wound down and fall began the gears of my clock started grinding. I was waking earlier in the morning before the alarm went off and began getting tired earlier in the evening.
This morning, the first day after DST ended, I woke up at 3:43 a.m. ready to start the day. Considering it was Sunday morning I thought I should try and go back to sleep. I did, and took advantage of that bonus extra hour, then energetically began doing laundry at 5:00 a.m., while some of my youthful neighbors and Halloween Freakfest revelers were just returning home.
Fourteen state legislatures have pending legislation to end DST. Since 2014 only 43% of Americans see the benefits and purpose of DST according to the Rasmussen Report. In an informal poll on Debate.org, as I write, only 19% of responders say yes to continuing DST while 81% say no. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of DST:
- Make better use of daylight.
- Conserves energy that would be spent on artificial light.
- Decreases road accidents by making sure roads are naturally lit during the hours with most traffic.
- Stimulates the economy, people are more likely to shop during daylight hours.
- Facilitates agricultural planting and harvesting by increasing daylight hours.
- Traditional dairy farmers often protest that changing the clocks one hour twice a year makes milking cows and getting the milk collected in time a challenge.
- Studies show that there is an increase in heart attacks the Monday morning after clocks are set forward one hour in the spring.
- Road accidents also increase in the spring the following Monday morning when drivers lose an hour’s sleep.
For many of my friends, winter is a time when SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) kicks in. Family and friends who suffer from chronic depression — winter ‘s lack of sunlight and its diminished health benefits — makes depression even worse and seem unrelenting. Sunlight deficiencies can potentially increase the risk for osteoporosis, heart disease, some cancers, infectious diseases and even the flu, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
- Excessive sleeping, fatigue
- Eating more, carbohydrate cravings, weight gain
- Avoidance of others, withdrawl
- Depressive symptoms, i.e. low self-esteem, low motivation, sadness
- Decreased sex drive
- Onset in the fall and early winter
- Has occurred in each of the last two years
Between 60 and 90% of women ages 15 to 55 are likely to develop SAD. Experts believe that sunlight boosts the body’s serotonin production, a neurotransmitter which regulates appetite, sleep, memory, and mood which is lower during the winter than the summer. On the flip side, experts believe that a lack of sunlight increases the body’s production of a chemical called melatonin.
Melatonin helps regulate sleep and makes you feel drowsy. Exposure to sunlight helps your body maintain its circadian rhythm, a 24-hour cycle that regulates biochemical, physiological, and behavioral processes and makes you feel tired when it’s dark outside. As winter approaches and the sun sets earlier each day, we naturally feel tired when it’s dark. I begin feeling like a hibernating bear. In the morning the sunlight tells your body that it’s no longer nighttime and stops producing melatonin.
SAD can be treated with light therapy. Studies have shown improvement, including complete remission in 50 to 80% of light therapy users. Light therapy in place of or in concert with antidepressants such as such as Paxil, Prozac, and Zoloft may help increase serotonin levels.
Time to Hibernate: Making the Most of the Mole Life
Having lived six decades in Wisconsin and being naturally resilient, I’ve learned how to adapt to the darkness and the cold winters. Like moles, it feels like I go underground, preferring the candlelight and dim lights of my home or a darkened movie theater to the artificially bright fluorescent lights of public places. I’m more prone to cook and enjoy soup, stew, and fat-rich comfort foods, unfortunately adding a few unneeded pounds which I strive to lose the following spring and summer.
I like to keep the thermostat turned down in my home and layer on warm clothes made of natural fabrics, cuddle up on the couch with a throw, and slip under a down comforter at night and hope to burn a few calories staying warm. The extra hours of sleep that I tend to get in the winter also have health benefits, including improving my A1C reading of my adult-onset diabetes.
Most of all, though winter can sometimes seem too long and challenging with snowstorms and dangerous road conditions, and a degree of isolation, it also helps me appreciate the other three seasons as both the natural world and my spirit reawakens in the spring; I play more in the summer and in the fall reflect on and harvest what I’ve sown in life.
Lastly, my to-do list for the day includes window-washing, so every ray of sunlight makes its way into my home. And, in addition to adjusting my circadian clock, I’m also going to tune my attitude, so I can find the light to carry me through this season of darkness.