Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a commonly reported ailment, but so common it makes you wonder whether it should be a disorder at all. The symptoms – difficulty getting up in the morning, lethargy, decreased libido and other pessimistic feelings – are prominent in the winter months, when the night are long and the days are cold.

Blizzards, shivers and the freezing cold is all that we associate with winter. According to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, our experiences of how the frosty cold makes us feel (sad, lonely) shapes our usage of the language in a way that we would describe apathetic people as ‘cold’. So is it our language that causes us to feel sad during the winter?

Researchers found that patients exposed to more light were more active when awake.

Not necessarily. In fact, research into light and circadian rhythms have shown that light regulates the body’s sleep patterns. Circadian rhythms in the brain determine our sense of daytime, and regulate many daily processes and fluctuations. At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York, researchers found that patients exposed to more light were more active when awake. It may be no surprise that in Scandinavia, where in winter the sun doesn’t rise at all, SAD is a serious issue.

In today’s society, we are required to be active for around 16 hours every day. Meanwhile, many animals hibernate throughout winter. Is it an absolute necessity for every human being to be happy and active every single day? Are we not allowed time to hibernate ourselves, or to dwell in our past, reflect upon our mistakes and listen to track after track of Dido? Maybe ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder’ is simply a title given to these months, something for us to ‘cure’ and then get on with daily functioning, meeting society’s expectations and finishing shedloads of coursework.

Are we not allowed time to hibernate ourselves, or to dwell in our past, reflect upon our mistakes and listen to track after track of Dido?

Despite this, one treatment has been shown to be effective in defeating the symptoms of SAD. Lightboxes work as an artificial sun that can be shone on the body, thereby regulating our circadian rhythms. Lightboxes and SAD lamps are popular, but a novel solution has come from the University of Oulu, Finland. The idea sounds somewhat unlikely, but may be effective in combating SAD. The product is called Valkee, and it employs LED headphones which shine light through your ear canal into the brain. Compared to shining yourself with a lightbox for several hours, you only need to use the Valkee for 6-12 minutes every day. 9 out of 10 people apparently experience relief of SAD symptoms within 4 weeks of using the Valkee.

The symptom relief may be a placebo effect – belief in the treatment causes it to actually work – but if helps you meet those January deadlines, who can complain?

Jonathan Jones

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Image: David Blackwell via Flickr

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