Seasonal depression affects millions of adults and children in the US – one in five is diagnosed with some form of it. Little is understood about this condition and with only surface-level similarities with traditional depression, understanding the causes of seasonal depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder are the subject of ongoing research. What we do know, however, suggests the effects of SAD may be related to the way our bodies and even our minds process light.
For millennia, human beings have been looking at the concept of “light” as more than just a physical guiding force. From religious and spiritual interpretations of light to practical and essential needs for illumination, it’s clear to see that light means a great deal for the human experience. Perhaps more than is apparent. Intrinsically Photosensitive Retinal Ganglion Cells, conveniently shortened to ipRGCs are cells within the mammalian eye that process light beyond image-forming vision. IpRGCs are responsible for pupil reflexes in relation to light, circadian rhythms, and interestingly, mood and energy levels. In some individuals, sensitivity to the changing seasons and quality of sunlight may disrupt ipRGCs and in turn, fail to maintain circadian rhythms.
There is yet another reason why we are so attracted to the pull of a warm summer day, as the sun does more than only warm up our skin. In the human body, vitamin D is an essential and nutritional heavy hitter. Responsible for maintaining bone health, supporting immune function, and facilitating absorption of other vitamins. Also known as the “sunshine vitamin,” we get vitamin D from sources far beyond just our diet – it comes from sunlight as well. During winter, long nights and cloudy days mean less quality sunlight and sunny days are fewer are farther between. During these months it’s nearly impossible to get enough vitamin D purely from sunlight; people living just 37 degrees from the equator don’t get the recommended amount.
Though scientists and doctors are not totally certain what causes Seasonal Affective Disorder, the evidence linking sunlight, vitamin D, and a handful of other environmental factors is enough to go on to develop treatments. In times of darkness, sometimes we have to make our own sunshine, so to speak. Gadgets and tech for artificial light have shown to be effective treatments for individuals living with SAD; don’t let the name fool you though, there is nothing “artificial” about the effects of artificial light. In a study in 2018, participants spent 30 minutes every morning wearing blue light emitting goggles, significantly reducing the reported sleepiness of those involved. By evening, however, blue light effects aren’t as beneficial and instead shifting towards warmer tones closer to bedtime helps support natural and personal circadian rhythm, increasing the quality of sleep, and improving mood.
Seasonal Affective Disorder or not, winter can take its toll on everyone; one in three Americans say that winter has a negative impact on their mood at work and one in four attributes January as their least happy month. Kick the winter blues with the help of powerful tech detailed in this infographic.
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