Is Climate Change Affecting Your Mood?
A Guest Post by Meteorologist Bonnie Schneider On How Weather Impacts Us
Today, I’m sharing the spotlight with Bonnie Schneider, a national television meteorologist based in New York City, appearing on MSNBC/NBC News and Yahoo! Finance. She created the platform weatherandwellness.com successfully launching its original video content focusing on climate change and health for New York-based Newsday’s digital site. Bonnie’s provided on-camera insight and expertise on everything from hurricanes to snowstorms for CNN, HLN, Bloomberg TV, and The Weather Channel.
This excerpt is from Bonnie’s new book: Taking the Heat: How Climate Change is Affecting Your Mind, Body & Spirit, and What You Can Do About It.
Shining A Light On Winter Blues
The gray, sparsely lit days of winter can be dismally cold. While some may find the chill in the air invigorating, for others, the reduced sunlight in January and February can trigger fatigue, despondence, and insatiable carbohydrate cravings. These mood and behavior changes can extend well beyond a mild case of the “winter blues” and manifest into severe depression. First proposed by Dr. Norman Rosenthal in 1984, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is now recognized as a “recurrent major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern usually beginning in fall and continuing into winter months.”
It’s Not Just The Weather
A study by scientists from Brigham Young University (BYU) published in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that people who lived in regions with shorter, darker days were more likely to experience more emotional distress.
The BYU analyzed past weather variables such as wind chill, rainfall, solar irradiance, wind speed, and temperature data was combined with mental and emotional health stats from BYU’s Counseling and Psychological Services Center.
The team presumed that cloudy and rainy weather would correlate with more mental stress, but what they found was that the amount of time between sunrise and sunset was the factor that matters most.
“That’s one of the surprising pieces of our research,” said Mark Beecher, a clinical professor and a licensed psychologist in BYU’s Counseling and Psychological Services. “On a rainy day, people assume that they’d have more distress. But we didn’t see that. We looked at solar irradiance or the amount of sunlight that actually hits the ground. The one really significant thing was the amount of time between sunrise and sunset.”
Research suggests that sunlight controls the levels of molecules that help maintain normal serotonin levels. And in people with SAD, this regulation does not function properly, resulting in decreased serotonin levels in the winter. Serotonin is considered one of the four “happy hormones” in the brain, the others being dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins. All of these can help promote positive feelings and good moods.
The Hormone of Darkness
Other research suggests that people with SAD produce too much melatonin, a primary hormone for maintaining the normal sleep-wake cycle. Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone in the brain, secreted by the pineal gland, also deep in the brain. Overproduction of melatonin can increase feelings of fatigue.
“It’s the hormone of darkness,” explained Dr. Qanta Ahmed, MD, attending sleep disorder specialist at NYU Langone Health Systems. “When the ambient light goes down, there’s something called dim light melatonin onset.”
As the light dims, our brain detects this and starts to “secrete pulses of melatonin, and the brain says, ‘Oh good, it’s dark, it must be time to get ready for sleep,’ Dr. Ahmed said. This is how the brain readies for the onset of sleep
Dr. Ahmed says some of her New York-based patients travel to Florida annually in the winter to help regulate their sleep patterns and manage seasonal depression. “The winter here in the Northeast—we’re in northern latitudes, so our days are shorter, and we have fewer hours of daylight than in the summer,” she said. “Some people find it very difficult to feel alert in the early dark mornings, and they see the sun going down at four or five p.m., and it makes them feel tired and sleepy.”
Both serotonin and melatonin help maintain the body’s daily rhythm tied to the seasonal night-day cycle. In people with SAD, the changes in serotonin and melatonin levels disrupt the normal daily rhythms. As a result, they can no longer adjust to the seasonal changes in day length, leading to sleep, mood, and behavior changes.
Sunshine Vitamin Deficit
Over a billion people worldwide are deficient in vitamin D, which can be consumed through diet, or absorbed through skin exposure to sunlight. A deficit may exacerbate seasonal depression, as studies indicate it’s a factor in promoting serotonin activity.
An international research partnership between the University of Georgia in Athens, the University of Pittsburgh, and the Queensland University of Technology in Australia discussed their findings on vitamin D deficiency and seasonal depression in the November 2014 issue of the journal Medical Hypotheses.
They found that vitamin D levels internally fluctuate seasonally in direct relation to available sunlight. Alan Stewart of the University of Georgia College of Education told Sciencedaily.com, “Studies show there is a lag of about eight weeks between the peak in intensity of ultraviolet radiation and the onset of SAD, and this correlates with the time it takes for UV radiation to be processed by the body into vitamin D.”
Light Is Zeitgeber
Just a few generations ago, most of the world’s population was involved in agriculture and was outdoors for much of the day. Before the invention of artificial light, natural sunlight guided the day. Our ancestors were exposed to high levels of bright light even in winter.
“If we look at the beginning of the twentieth century, there wasn’t this enormous amount of electricity that we have everywhere. People actually woke up with the crows at sunrise and would go to bed at sunset,” Dr. Ahmed said.
That’s not the case today, as most people spend 90 percent of their time indoors, surrounded by artificial light. In the course of a century, Americans are losing almost ninety minutes of total sleep time due to less natural light exposure.
Dr. Ahmed explained that as biological organisms, we are programmed to rise in the morning and doze off at night almost entirely in relation to the illumination around us. She describes light as the most powerful source or the zeitgeber, a time-giver that tells us that it’s time to wake up or time to fall asleep.
Light is also linked with our emotions, according to Dr. Ahmed. “It affects mood tremendously. If there’s bright light—a normal sunny day, for example, is measured at a light strength of about 10,000 lux, equivalent to 10,000 candles. Most artificially illuminated buildings are operating somewhere at about 400 to 1,000 lux—much, much dimmer, so we’re not mimicking the exposure to sunlight that we can.”
Lighting the Path to Improved Mood
Exposure to light can also be therapeutic for those who suffer from seasonal depression. It’s one of the most common treatments for SAD. (Others include antidepressant medications, talk therapy, or some combination of these.) While symptoms will generally improve on their own with the change of season, they can improve more quickly with treatment.
Light therapy involves sitting in front of a box that emits a very bright light (and filters out harmful ultraviolet rays). The fluorescent illumination can deliver 10,000 lux at a time. Doctors treating SAD who’ve advised patients to sit in front of the box for twenty to forty minutes or an hour each morning say they’ve found it improves mood.
Dr. Rosenthal was one of the earliest experts to utilize these devices in treatment. “Back in the mid-1980s, and we did that early work with light therapy. And now it’s been validated across the world that more light helps people, especially in the morning,” said Dr. Rosenthal.
Studies indicate when used correctly and consistently under medical supervision through the winter months, between 50 percent and 80 percent of light-therapy users have complete remissions of symptoms. It’s advised to consult your physician before you begin to use a light box.
Lifestyle Tips to Manage Seasonal Depression
Eat healthy: Get creative and look for hearty, low-calorie recipes that are easy to prepare.
Avoid social isolation: Spend time with your friends and family, snuggle with pets. Friends and family can be good to talk to about how the season is affecting you.
Stay active: Volunteer, join a local club, go for a walk, be proactive about planning activities in advance during the winter to keep active and engaged with others.
Get Regular Sleep: Try to wake up and go to bed at the same time each day. Reduce or eliminate napping and oversleeping.
Brighten Surroundings: Open blinds during the day, trim tree branches that block sunlight. Sit closer to windows while at home or in the office.
Do you get winter blues? How are you coping? Let us know in the comments below.