“As I grew older, the arrival of autumn every year brought with it a sense of depression held over from my youth. The coming of winter blanketed my heart with a darkness that seemed to be inescapable. Although the world was covered in white, my emotions were black and grim. I became sullen, I gained weight, all I wanted to do was sleep. The sadness appeared in late September, and seemed to fade away with the first new leaves of spring, and the call of the arriving robins. Like the crocuses and daffodils awakening from their slumber, my soul seemed to wake up as well.
“As an adult, I have learned to put a name to this seasonal depression: Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. Somewhere, somehow, a wise and knowing person recognized that millions upon millions of human beings across the world acknowledged the same symptoms I had suffered through virtually every autumn and winter of my entire life. This wise and knowing person put a name to it, and suggested treatment: light. Bright, blazing, intense, warm, wonderful light.” – Mirium
Many people suffer from what is call SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder. SAD is a particular form of acute depression. People born in warmer climates and move to cold climates find they are unusually susceptible to this disorder. However, no matter where you live, this disorder usually begins when the temperature begins to drop, and the daylight hours grow short. This winter depression may be accompanied by a craving for sweet foods and a resulting weight gain, as well as difficulty in motivating oneself to rise from bed in the morning before sunrise. In severe cases medical attention needs to be sought, especially for those persons whose normal routines are interrupted and they find themselves withdrawn and overly sad, seeking sleep during the daytime hours, and unable to perform their normal duties.
Some people also experience Summer SAD due to lack of exposure to the sun in the summer months. This may be due to long hours at indoor work or to avoidance of the sun in very hot climates – such as Saudi Arabia. Symptoms of Summer SAD may be poor appetite, weight loss and insomnia. Either type of SAD may also include symptoms present in some other kinds of depression, such as feelings of guilt, a loss of interest or pleasure in activities, persistent feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, or physical problems such as headaches and tummy troubles.
In ALL cases of SAD, however, melatonin seems to be the common link in the causes of the disorder. Melatonin is a natural hormone made by the body’s pineal (pih-knee-uhl) gland. The pineal gland lies at the base of the brain. When the sun goes down, and darkness comes, the pineal gland “goes to work.” As melatonin production rises, a person begins to feel less alert and body temperature starts to fall. Sleep seems more inviting.
Then, melatonin levels drop quickly with the dawning of a new day. Levels are so low during the day, in fact, that scientists often have difficulty detecting melatonin at all during the day. Melatonin levels thus go hand in hand with the light-dark cycle, not just for people, but also for plants and animals that keep alert during the day.
Melatonin production is also related to age. Children manufacture more melatonin than the elderly do and melatonin production begins to drop at puberty. Also, when days become shorter and darker the production of this hormone increases. Melatonin levels in the body determine a person’s activity and “energy” level. High melatonin levels cause drowsiness, while low melatonin levels correspond to an alert state of consciousness.
Light therapy using special light lamps is the most common ways to alleviate this struggle for alertness. Our bodies need a full spectrum of light to carry out a variety of metabolic processes and produce melatonin at acceptable levels. Light entering the eye regulates body chemistry, and in particular, the secretion or suppression of melatonin. Note, however, that due to UV dangers, therapists do not recommend the use of tanning beds as a cure for SAD http://www.nu-light.com.
Some very light-sensitive people who live or work in dim environments may feel improvement with increased exposure to normal room light. Research studies show, however, that most sufferers of SAD and winter doldrums require exposure to light levels much higher than ordinary indoor lamps and ceiling fixtures provide.
Such therapeutic levels are five to twenty times higher (as measured in lux or foot-candles by a light meter) than typical indoor illumination in the home or office. Aside from these environmental treatments, some sufferers find that standard antidepressant medications provide relief, even if they do not reach their normal level of well being until spring or summer. Many patients have been in psychotherapy and found it to be helpful to them in many ways – but unfortunately, not in relieving their SAD symptoms www.lightandions.org/blt.htm.
However, as Muslims we can have faith that the symptoms of SAD will not remain all year long. For Allah (swat) set everything in motion and the days will grow long again as soon as December 21st. On this shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun is at its lowest and weakest, a pivotal point from which the light will grow stronger and brighter once again feeding us with light and warmth. This event will alleviate SAD and make it easier to arise and perform wudu and salat.
- American Academy of Family Physicians. “Information from Your Family Doctor, Seasonal Affective Disorder.” American Academy of Family Physicians. February 2000.
- Anderson JL; Rosen LN; Mendelson WB; Jacobsen FM; Skwerer RG; Joseph-Vanderpool JR; Duncan CC; Wehr TA; Rosenthal NE. “Sleep in Fall/Winter Seasonal Affective Disorder: Effects of Light and Changing Seasons.” Journal of Psychosomatic. 1994 May, 38:4, 323-37.
- Bagby RM; Schuller DR; Levitt AJ; Joffe RT; Harkness KL. “Seasonal and Non-Seasonal Depression and the Five-Factor Model of Personality.” Canda: University of Toronto: J Affect Disorders. 1996 Jun 5, 38:2-3, 89-95.
- Birtwistle J; Martin N. “Seasonal Affective Disorder: Its Recognition and Treatment.” British Journal of Nursing. 1999 Aug, 8:15, 1004-9.
- Lindsley, Gila. “Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): About Light, Depression & Melatonin.” USA: New Technology Publishing, Inc.
This article is from Science’s archive and we’ve originally published it on an earlier date.