That Nature Show: Seasonal Affective Disorder

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Turn your light box up to ELEVEN. It’s mid-Atlantic midwinter. Oops, I mean… it’s the holiday season. Ring a ding ding ding, Happy New Year. (Join me next week to learn about more how harnessing the latest in brain science will help you keep your New Year’s resolutions.)

Seasonal affective disorder (horrible acronym: SAD) is a disorder found to rise in the traditional Chesapeake oystering months, the ones that end in R, September through March, when it’s coldest and the days are darkest. It’s a species of depression. As David Attenborough says in his melancholic voice-over for BBC Wildlife, “This is why bears hibernate.”

What to do? Create an underground den filled with Doritos. Get as much light as possible during the day, says Dr. Samer Hatter of The Brain Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University Medical School. Go for a walk at noon. This is obviously not brain science! Wait. Yes, it is! In addition, get adequate Vitamin D, and more exercise.

“And try to avoid very bright lights at night…they have a very strong alerting affect,” says Dr. Hatter. Power down your smart phones, TVs, and computers. There goes my married life. No soporific Parks and Rec reruns? No impeccably made-up Alicia Florrick contributing to the sense in Hollywood that women don’t age, that Frances McDormand stands alone? What am I supposed to do? Read French literature by candlelight? Talk to my husband? Actually, yes.

According to Harvard Medical School, “Light at night is bad for your health, and exposure to blue light emitted by electronics and energy-efficient lightbulbs may be especially so.” Candles are okay. The light they emit is reddish, like the warm firelight flickering in the caves of our cave-dwelling cave-painting ancestors.

In the market this holiday season for a cute l’il holiday-themed night light for your child? Fit it with a red bulb.  “Hamsters exposed to red light at night had significantly less evidence of depressive-like symptoms and changes in the brain linked to depression, compared to those that experienced blue or white light,” although of course I am not comparing your child to a hamster.


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