When Autumn Awakens the Struggle

Pumpkin spice and apple cider scents spill from store door fronts. Hay wagon rides round the pumpkin patches. Stadium lights illuminate the end zones. Schools find a routine. Calendars fill with upcoming holiday gatherings. Tree leaves transform into vibrant images so close to chalk drawings that we’re afraid to touch them for fear of smudging the beauty before us. 

It’s autumn.

For some, autumn is nostalgic. Their experiences mirror those just described. But what if behind the smiling faces at the tailgating party and social media posts of families smiling for fall family photos, there is a different reality? Although many love autumn and all the traditions and comfortable weather it brings, others see it as one thing: The start of their Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIM) clarifies that SAD isn’t a separate disorder. It is a type of depression that’s experienced in a “seasonal pattern” and related to a reduction in light. NIM terms it “Winter Blues” because as we travel toward and through winter and experience less sunlight than any other season, those with SAD experience low energy, oversleeping, overeating, weight gain, carb cravings, and social withdrawal. 

But why, exactly, does less sun exposure matter?

Lack of sunlight is linked to an increase in the body’s production of melatonin, which helps you sleep. So when it’s increased, so, too, is the desire to sleep and be lethargic. Along with an increase in melatonin, lack of sunlight is linked to an increase in stress for those with SAD. An increase in both lethargic behavior and stress isn’t helpful when faced with home and work deadlines and not meeting those deadlines or handling them well, triggers more depression. It’s a vicious cycle.

Whereas melatonin levels increase with less light exposure, serotonin levels decrease. Medical News Today calls serotonin the “happy chemical” because it’s associated with boosting mood and helping someone feel calm and focused. Just when we need serotonin the most because our increased melatonin levels are curtailing our energy and happiness, we experience it less.

How does someone with SAD combat a depression that threatens to derail their health and their ability to fully enjoy all of autumn and winter’s beauty, you ask?

For those who can afford it, both financially and timewise, choosing a warm-destination vacation in the winter months is healthier for someone with SAD than that same vacation in any other season. A less expensive approach researchers agree on is regular exercise, which triggers the body’s secretion of endorphins, elevates heart rate, balances out extra calories and promotes a healthy lifestyle to combat the urge to overeat. Healthline.com challenges those with SAD to “… fight off SAD with your fork”, specifically by gaining the health benefits and energy boosts from the following: lean proteins, omega-3 fatty acids, berries, limit sugar intake, Vitamin B-12, Vitamin D, dark chocolate (highest cocoa content possible), turkey, and bananas. 

But, perhaps, the most interesting way to combat SAD is with a light box (i.e. Light Therapy or Phototherapy). Research shows that light boxes combat both SAD and major depression. But to understand a light box it’s important to understand a lux, which is a standard unit of light flow.

Consider the following:

  • An average living room light is 100 lux.
  • An average office with fluorescent lighting is 300-500 lux.
  • When the sun sets, it’s 1,000 lux.
  • When it’s a sunny afternoon, the sun measures 20,000-100,000 lux.

One look at these statistics and it’s clear that as our days get shorter, because the sun is traveling farther south in the Northern Hemisphere, our exposure to light decreases exponentially. During November and December, many leave their homes for work in the dark and they return from work in that same darkness. Except for the light seeping through their work windows while they earn their paychecks, there are days when many never step directly into the sunlight.

Enter the light box.

The average light box is 10,000 lux and comparative to being outside on a cloudy day. Someone with SAD sits a few feet from a light box within the first hour of waking each day and by doing so, experience positive effects in as little as a few days or weeks. Experts agree that fluorescent, white lights are most effective and that someone with SAD should consult their doctor before purchasing a light box to better ensure it’s the best option and that they choose a light box of high quality that is safe and effective.

If you suffer from SAD, don’t sit on the sidelines of your life every year. When you plan, you plan to win. Make nutrition a priority. Engage in regular exercise. Consider Light Therapy. Life is too short to miss your children and grandchildren bobbing for apples in autumn and singing carols in winter. 

Author: Evelyn Lindell
Certified Health & Wellness Coach