Danish sculptor and writer, Sinnet Morch, has suffered from SAD all her life. She describes her own experiences and how she copes. Plus a run down on the lights available.
We all know that without the sun there would be no life on our planet. We also know that strong direct sunlight is life threatening and have learnt to smother ourselves in high-factor lotion, defy Noel Coward and stay out of the midday sun.
Not so well known and understood is the fact that months of no or weak sunlight is debilitating and is also, indirectly, a killer. It causes lethargy and varying degrees of depression. Deep depression can lead to suicidal despair. Sadly the figure for suicide in dark, northern countries is very high.
The term SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) has been around about 25 years – the condition itself since our beginnings. The people living across the lowland and plains of Northern Europe have always battled the effects of sun deprivation. Russian and Scandinavian literature is preoccupied with the horror of the 'the glums' and make them look like an honourable side effect of genius. Recent genetic research has shown that they can be, but only when depression is an illness. SAD does not fall into this category.
The pineal gland (an outgrowth from the brain) excretes the hormone melatonin. When we get high summer sun it is dormant. However, when the sun gets low on the horizon it is activated. All vertebrates have this gland and the melatonin is the signal to hibernate or migrate. As we humans have jobs and families to look after we can do neither so are left to get on as best we can.
My own experience
I have suffered from SAD since I was a little girl in the 1930s. To the best of my knowledge there is no literature on SAD affecting children but there is no other explanation for my behaviour pattern at the time.
I grew up on a flat Danish island – the climate was quite different from today's – where the land was covered in deep snow for three of four months of the year. Before I started school I was let out in the garden during the best hours of light from ten to one. I built an igloo and on the dark days pushed my sledge into it, curled up on it and slept. When the sky was clear and the sun visible I placed my sledge in the middle of the lawn and lay on it staring into the pale world with wide-open eyes.
Many animals know they need extra minerals and seek out deposits in the ground and regularly have a healthy lick. I think that my light-seeking then was a variation of the same instinct
The SAD experience
The SAD effect starts with a feeling off lethargy, both mental and physical, probably in October. It’s a bit like being wrapped tightly inside thick woolly blanket. In the worst cases one is almost paralysed. One also starts to sleep for far too many hours. I have been known to notch up fourteen. But it is important to remember that SAD is a condition, which can be dealt with.
Apart from the lethargy I have to cope with a problem, which I do not think is mine alone; I suspect it is common. From November to spring I pick up any bug going and activate any ‘live-in’ viruses. My personal opinion, for what’s worth, is not that SAD weakens the immune system, but that the immune system has priorities and exhausts its self-fighting SAD.
However, after a lifetime of this hu-ha I have, almost beaten it. Here is how it’s done
Force yourself out of bed and get to the bathroom somehow – crawl if you must – I have.
Get under the shower, lukewarm water. Stay till you begin to feel alive again (you will) and finish with at least 30 seconds of cold water. It can be done – promise.
Do NOT take a hot bath.
Exercise is a must. There is always some light at midday, so get out there for a brisk walk. Working out in the gym is also good, What ‘location, location' is to property, 'exercise, exercise' is to SAD.
If you cannot get out for a walk or a work out. Put your chair close to the window and, for at least an hour, look directly out the window at whatever sun there is. This is very important. As little as ten minutes of direct midday sun can help and, surprisingly, even if it is overcast, half an hour of looking at where the sun would be if you could see it is extremely helpful.
• Vitamin D. Supplementing with Vitamin D certainly helps – see Dr Downing's article for more details.
And don’t forget: foods matter! With SAD goes a huge craving for carbohydrates. Don’t give in to it. You will undo all your SAD busting efforts and put on weight. This will depress you and make it even more difficult to take exercise that you need.
Full-Spectrum light boxes are an enormous help and these days you can get ones small enough to take to work or with you if you travel. You can also get lights which sit on top of your computer or on your desk, which means that you can absorb the beneficial rays while you, are working. I think these should be mandatory equipment in every office during the dark months. I am sure it would result in a great deal less depression and increased productivity.
It usually takes 4 to 10 days for the effects to clock in, depending on the person concerned. ME sufferers seem to benefit from light boxes as well. Up to 50% of suffers reporting improvements in their symptoms provided they build the treatment up very gradually.
• Get Rich. A sure cure for SAD is to spend the winter in the sun!
Light boxes/lamps ( ed.)
www.sad.org.uk is a support group for those suffering with SAD with some useful back ground information about the condition.
They also have a list of recommended manufacturers of SAD light boxes and suggest that you only buy from those as there are a number of copycat light boxes on the market that do not deliver the level of light needed. However, they do point out that, effectively, you get what you pay for as the cheaper the light, the fewer, or lower level, the light it will emit; fine if you just want to boost you mood in the darker days, but if you suffer from serious SAD you are going to need a three or four bulb light. To be effective you are looking for lights to produce around 10,000 Lux at 15cm from the user as that is the level at which it is classed as 'therapeutic'.
They also point out that 'dawn' lights are not SAD lights so do not buy them thinking they are.
You can either get the traditional fluorescent lit light boxes or you can use an LED lit box which is smaller and whose bulbs last longer. Its makers also claim that it delivers a more efficient light than traditional fluorescent lamps. Sinnet is currently trying these out and we will report in a f ew weeks.
VAT – because a light box is a therapeutic device you can usually get it ex-Vat – you just need to fill in and sign a form saying that you suffer from SAD.
Britebox Energise offers a four bulb light box (producing the required 10,000 Lux of light) which opens up like a book and sits on your desk - but also folds away so that it is easy to carry around with you. It costs £189 including VAT and delivery. They offer a 60 day money back guarantee.
Full Spectrum Solutions offer a selection of dimmable 70watt table and floor lamps plus a very agricultural looking box running for $169 to $299 – but you will need to add the cost of delivery from the US.
But.... you can also get the Full Spectrum Diamond range (the Diamond 3/4/5 Lights) from The Healthy House for £252 to £318 including VAT but plus delivery. However, they only offer a 14 day returns policy. But, they will rent you a box for amonth to see how you get on and hel you decide whether to actually buy one.
And you can get them from www.sad.co.uk (who also offer various other makes). Their boxes run from £250 to £318 including VAT and delivery. However they also only offer a 14 day return policy.
Innosol offer a wide range of options from a flat round lamp which can be used on a table or mounted on a wall ( £115), to the more traditional flat boxes (£198 – £230) or even a Finnish designed multi-light table lamp for £289 – all from www.bodykind.com. However I cannot find any information about return policies on their site.
The Lite book is a small LED light that claims to be as, if not more, efficient than the traditional fluorescent bulbs, without the 'blue light hazard'/radiation risks of fluorescent tubes. The Litebook Elite costs £149 inc VAT – review to follow in a few weeks. They offer a 60 day money back guarantee.
Lumie offer four lights all at around £120 – 2 boxes and two desk lights. However, even the Arabica that they recommend for serious SAD only has two tubes so would probably not be that effective if you were badly affected.
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