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Friday, December 30, 2005


This is my LIVE WRITE newspaper column for next week - as always, comments welcome. Note: only those in the dark, cold, northern hemisphere will easily relate to this article. The rest of you are welcome to send me airline tickets...

At this time of year, someone living in Canada may be forgiven for secretly hoping that global warming is on its way soon. You understand that rapid climate change will disrupt life as we know it and you probably support the Kyoto Protocol (the UN Convention on Climate Change). Yet, you can’t help imagining the balmy weather - maybe even palm trees and January without snow. No more winter tires, no more shoveling, no need to fly to Mexico to take off your clothes outdoors…

Many in Canada seem to love winter – and to be content with its annual arrival. For them, “Yes it’s cold, but it’s a dry cold…” or “I get above it all by going to the ski hill…” or “It’s great because my kids love the snow so much.” This northern spirit is admirable, yet some of us relate more to the words of humorist Dave Berry, “The problem with winter sports is that – follow me closely here – they generally take place in winter.”

Feeling the winter blues now and then (even for true enthusiasts) is not unusual. Many people feel mildly depressed during winter, but for some, it’s more serious. They experience severe bouts of feeling down all the time, low energy, problems with sleep and appetite, and reduced concentration to the point that they have difficulty functioning. In extreme cases, suicidal thoughts may occur. This condition is recognized as a mood disorder and is named Seasonal Affective Disorder (forming the appropriate acronym, SAD).

According to the UBC Mood Disorders Centre, other common symptoms of SAD include oversleeping, extreme fatigue, carbohydrate craving, overeating and weight gain. These are normal things for a bear to experience in winter, but not particularly useful for most people.

It’s not known for sure what causes SAD. Researchers believe it has to do with the fewer daylight hours reducing mood altering chemicals in the brain. It may also be our biological clocks telling us to sleep more – which puts us out of step with our somewhat artificially supported schedules. These no longer change according to the seasons.

The Canadian Mental Health Association believes that 2% or 3% of Canadians suffer from SAD, while about 15% have the less severe winter blues. Women are more likely than men to experience SAD. It can be important for a professional to rule out a diagnosis of clinical depression, which can also have predictable cycles throughout the year.

There are things that can be done to alleviate the symptoms of SAD, other than simply waiting for spring. They include spending time in a southern location – for those with the means, there’s nothing like swaying in a hammock or strolling along a tropical beach to temporarily perk up the circadian rhythms. Here at home, you can spend active time outdoors - exercise relieves stress and increases mental and physical well-being. Indoors, keep the curtains tied back and the branches covering the windows well trimmed, so that when the sun breaks through, it shines on you.

Many people with SAD respond well to exposure to bright, artificial light. Light therapy involves sitting beside a special fluorescent light box for a period of time each day. A health care professional should be consulted before beginning light therapy, as it’s not suitable for everyone.

Good company and laughter may also help. Writer W.J. Vogel’s advice might put a smile on your face: “To shorten winter, borrow some money due in spring.”

Gary, I enjoyed it very much. I think it might be my favorite of your Live Write articles so far. I like the investigation into SAD (nicely developed and written). I love the humor. Read it twice!
Gary: good article on the effects of SAD. For a while, I didn't believe that people could be affected by change in weather (erm, not talking about things like the Tsunami). Maybe, I'm one of those who thinks winter isn't so bad. :) When I first heard about Light therapy years back, I actually ranted about how money should be more well spent. Anyway, before I hang myself, I'll log off.
Great article, Gary. I have tended to suffer from this syndrome during my adult life, so it was interesting to me when I finally found out what it was. It's not so bad here in Memphis where it reached the neighborhood of 60 degrees today, but I can imagine that Canadians have it worse with the shorter days and more snow.

Nicely done.
Good post Gary - Happy New Year.
well written once again, Gary.

(btw, what is 'Live Write'?)
Live Write is the name of the newspaper column I do. It's every other week and goes to about a dozen papers in British Columbia. The focus is meant to be on health in the broad sense - in 'living right'. Bad pun.

I think the Scots thrive on SAD! (I'm part Scot myself)
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