Monday, January 17, 2011


No, not really...but you know what they say about the short winter days and long winter nights that are part of living at this latitude (51˚N for London – Sydney is at 34˚S). There is a reason for the popularity of all those mid-winter festivals: to cheer everyone up. In recent decades 'Seasonal Affective Disorder' has become a recognised medical condition. For the layman, it basically means you’re fed up with the dark of winter. Although the condition is more common in latitudes which experience long dark winters (gawd help ‘em in St Petersburg) it has also been found amongst people who spend long hours in ill-lit office buildings. Apparently SAD does increase with higher (northern) latitudes, but (happily for the Inuit) doesn’t continue increasing all the way to the Poles. The reverse is so for extreme southern latitudes too, of course, except that there's almost no-one living down there, bar a few hardy souls in Tierra del Fuego.

The symptoms  of SAD include low moods, lethargy, not wanting to get out of bed, grumpiness, a bit of weight gain, and generally ‘the blues’. Recognise that? Possibly it describes a lot of people in winter - except of course those energetic souls who get out on the bright ski slopes.

But there’s good news: SAD can be helped by turning on the lights – special lights, which filter out damaging UV light, and which replace daylight. There are a variety of theories about why this works, but it is true that the human physiology works to circadian rhythms responsive to the daily cycle of sunrise and sunset. The production of the hormone melatonin, a sleep regulator, is inhibited by light and permitted by darkness. Whatever the cause, the SAD light boxes are said to be a great help. You can get ‘Dawn Simulator’ alarm clocks which mimic a slowly lightening dawn sky right in your bedroom, even when it is still pitch dark outside.

But there is still more light outdoors even in winter than can be bathed upon you by an electrical appliance. A one-hour walk outdoors can improve the symptoms of SAD (assuming of course that it is not driving rain or howling sleet out there). And on some days – well, there just is no light, especially in the early mornings.
SAD lamps have also been spruiked as a possible aid to overcoming jet lag. Incidentally, I have read authoritatively that for jet lag, travelling west to east over three or more time zones is the most difficult shift – I knew travelling London-Sydney was the hardest!

SAD itself is not classified as a sleeping disorder, but rather as a type of depression. It is said that millions of people suffer from it, although in most cases it manifests merely as a general loss of enthusiasm. However, that can be bad enough if you are used to an active and involved life, and now you could care less about getting out of bed.  So, if you can’t take (another) holiday in sunnier climes, it is good news about the lamps.

While looking up this information, I learned that light is also used to treat a huge range of other conditions, so much so that the list reads something like the claims of a snake-oil salesman: skin disorders including acne, psoriasis, eczema, wound-healing; sleep disorders of various kinds including jet lag; depression and psychiatric disorders that are mood related; infant jaundice; hay fever - oh, and Parkinson’s’ disease (it may reduce the tremors). It is also spruiked for Alzheimer sufferers, to counteract ‘sundowning’, the term used for the old folks being bright and chipper in the mornings but getting more confused as the day progresses. All this can only be good.

So, light is a pretty amazing thing – even if we don’t get distracted by quantum physics and relativity theory (which postulates that light photons can travel backwards as well as forwards in time...but I digress...)

In the UK there are several organisations to support SAD sufferers: It makes you wonder just how many SAD people there are out there in England.

A company called Lumie, based near Cambridge, is a pioneer in developing SAD lights. They supply products to the British Swimming team, because swimmers have to get up at 5 am to train, summer and winter. Hmm...could this be a British secret weapon for the 2012 Olympics?

In any event, since these lamps are now as cheap to buy as a bedside light, I have dipped my toe in the water and ordered a little bit of electronic daylight for my dark garret, and one of those ‘Dawn Simulators’ for the bedroom. I’ll let you know how they go. The blog posts could get twice as long! And more interesting! I can feel the rays of light illuminating the text even now....

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