There Goes the Sun: Surviving seasonal affective disorder

By Erin Smith

When I was in middle school, I read Ray Bradbury’s “All Summer in a Day.”

In it, Margot, a child from Earth, moves to Venus, where the sun is only visible for one hour every seven years.

Margot tells the children in her new class about this gorgeous, brilliant sun. They don’t believe her and lock her in a closet for telling lies.

This happens, of course, on the one day the sun does come out. The children, upon seeing sun shining through the classroom windows, race outside, forgetting Margot. They frolic and play until one girl catches a raindrop in her hand.

As they unlock the closet to hang up their coats, they are horrified to find the forgotten and heartbroken Margot. The one child who loved the sun most missed her chance to feel it upon her face.

I feel like Margot every time I turn my clock back an hour.

I like the light early in the day, but darkness seems to fall too quickly each night.

I grieve daily, knowing that today will have one less minute of light than yesterday, the days growing darker until Winter Solstice on Dec. 21, when the tilt of the Earth’s axis will cause the sun to set on Quisenberry Lane at 5:26 p.m.

Just thinking about it makes me weepy, unmotivated and exhausted.

Humans are designed to flourish in light. Full-spectrum light enters our eyes. The rods and cones in the eyes send signals along the optic nerve to the pineal gland, a pea-sized gland deep in the brain. The pineal gland releases melatonin, a hormone that tells the body when to sleep or be alert. This gland also releases dimethyltryptamine, a psychedelic chemical similar to the “euphoria neurotransmitter” serotonin (dimethyltryptamine is the chemical ingested in shamanic Ayahuasca ceremonies).

Basically, full-spectrum light makes our brains alert and happy.

Take away that light, and our brains feel sleepy, lethargic and sad like poor Margot, stuck in that dark closet.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD) affects as many as 10 million Americans each year.

SAD, sometimes termed “the winter blues,” generally starts in the fall and continues through the winter, often abating in the spring.

Signs and symptoms of SAD include depression, anxiety, over- or under-eating (especially a craving for carbohydrates), scattered thoughts, sleeping problems, exhaustion, lack of motivation, weight gain and a general feeling of malaise.

How can we love up that pineal during the long, dark days of fall and winter? Here are some holistic ways to stay on the sunny side of life.

I see the light.

Phototherapy involves exposing yourself to full-spectrum light.

On days when the sun shines, sit near a window for at least 20 minutes. Or invest in a light box, a special device that produces similar effects to natural light. We use the Verilux Happy Light, available from Amazon for about $100.

Gimme a D!

Vitamin D receptors in our brain are closely tied to increased nerve growth.

Remove the vitamin D and our brains work in slow motion.

Ever have to pause when speaking to find the word you were looking for? That’s slow nerve response.

Our recall function slows, resulting in brain fog.

Liquid D supplements can help.

Better yet is a quick trip south of the border. It’s no coincidence that I lead a yoga retreat in Mexico every January.

You can absorb a little natural D through your skin that will last for several months (it only takes about 10 to 15 minutes of mid-day sun on your legs).

The D you got in August will generally run out by the holidays, so you need another dose to get you to spring.

Eat your way happy.

Wild salmon, tuna and other fatty foods are great sources of Vitamin D. And remember what I said about low D levels creating slow brain nerve responses?

Potassium-rich foods such as brown rice, avocados, broccoli and bananas help our nerves to fire optimally.

Potassium has been shown to elevate mood, relieve symptoms of depression and regulate serotonin.

You can also help to balance your melatonin levels by eating more foods in tryptophan, a melatonin precursor. These include oats, ginger, almonds and meats like chicken and turkey.

Go nuts with magnesium.

Magnesium helps the body produce more serotonin and melatonin.

Low magnesium is quite common and associated with brain fog, insomnia, depression and anxiety.

Magnesium-rich foods include kelp, almonds, pecans and cashews.

A fabulous way to get plenty of magnesium is by soaking in a bath with Epsom salt (magnesium sulfate) to soothe achy muscles, calm the mind, detox the body, relieve constipation and help you sleep.

Self-care not health care.

During these dark days, be sure to take time to fill your cup.

Get regular exercise (might I suggest yoga?) and meditate for a few minutes each day.

Build a support network and spend quality time with your people.

I keep a jigsaw puzzle going at all times, take regular infrared saunas and spend as much time in nature that I can.

Talk to your doc.

Severe cases of SAD might require medication or psychotherapy. Don’t hesitate to talk to your doctor about any symptoms you are experiencing.

Though it might feel like seven years before the sun will shine again around here, it won’t actually be that long. Take care of yourself and know that the sun will return.

Erin Smith is the owner of the OM place in Winchester, the author of “Sensible Wellness for Women” and the online host of a yoga and mindfulness channel for Eppic Films.Send her a shout out at erin@theOMplace.net or play along at www.theOMplaceChannel.com.