Feeling deficient in sunlight

Sunshine

Yesterday and today were gorgeous. The sun was out, the sky was mostly blue with the occasional puffy cloud. The sunshine was much appreciated, and I took advantage of the warming rays to go for a short walk. Yesterday on the morning news they said that to that point we’d only had 20 hours of sunshine (not overcast) so far this February. In an average February the Toronto area would see about 110 hours over the full month. So we’re a little deficient this year.

If you’re like me, long stretches of overcast skies can start to wear at you. I find the winter rather long, and beginning usually in January I begin to itch for the spring to arrive (and it’s not just because, as an Ontario naturalist, that’s when all the activity starts, nor is it strictly that I find the minus temperatures difficult to enjoy being out in).

Blue sky

Many people will go through periods of the “winter blues”, characterized by low energy and depressed enthusiasm for things. A more severe form of this is SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) or SSAD (subsyndromal SAD, slightly milder), and sufferers show symptoms of mild or severe depression, occasionally (but rarely) even becoming suicidal. It’s generally associated with decreased sunlight during the winter months, both in the form of shorter day lengths and increased numbers of cloudy days. The exact mechanism affecting the brain is unclear.

Highway-side wetland

In northern latitudes it can be very common. Here in Ontario, studies have shown that 2 to 3% of the population suffers from SAD in the winter (no mention of whether most of these live in the northern part of the province). In Alaska, nearly 9% of people may suffer from SAD, and a further quarter of the population may have the less severe SSAD. An even higher 20% of people in Ireland and Scandinavia may be affected by SAD. Some studies have suggested there may be a genetic basis to the disorder (Icelanders, including those of Icelandic descent in other regions of the world, are resistant to the disorder), and research has found that women are up to eight times more likely to be affected than men (think it has anything to do with our natural hormonal mood swings?).

Sunshine

The treatment? Usually exposure to specially designed lamps, which help compensate for the lower natural light levels. Sometimes antidepressant medication is also prescribed. The lightbox mimics light levels on a partly-cloudy day (about 10,000 lux, whereas cloudy days are around 3,000 lux, sunny days 50,000 lux, and indoor light only about 400 lux). About 30 minutes a day exposed to this lightsource helps most sufferers. Since we don’t know for sure why people suffer from SAD, we can’t say for sure why more light helps, but there’s substantial proof that it does.

People with milder symptoms (the “winter blues” or SSAD) may simply be helped by spending more time outdoors, particularly if combined with regular exercise, such as going for a walk during your noonhour. Taking vitamin supplements, particularly vitamin D which your body needs sunlight to produce and so many people are deficient in during the winter, may also help.

Happy cat

My personal belief is that the cats have got it right. Look at this guy, doesn’t he look like one happy cat? And it’s probably because he’s been able to stave off SAD by lying in sunny puddles all day. I enjoy a good curl-up in the sun, too, but unfortunately it’s much harder to find a human-sized puddle than it is a cat-sized one.

Sunset

The days are getting longer now. December 21 was the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. The spring equinox, the day when day and night are equal, will be March 20. Today in Toronto sunrise was at 7:16am and sunset at 5:48pm. In two weeks, at the end of the month, those times will be 6:56am and 6:04pm – 36 more minutes of daylight. By St. Patrick’s Day, just a month from now, sunrise will be 7:26am (don’t forget daylight saving) and sunset 7:26pm (there’s a neat coincidence) – nearly an hour and a half more daylight than we have now. So cheer up, fellow winter-weary, there’s light on the horizon!

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8 responses to “Feeling deficient in sunlight

  1. Even though days get very short in the winter when you live as far north as we do, I like the fact that they change very quickly. It’s encouraging to start seeing sunlight later in the day, even when the days are still relatively short.

    And I do like having daylight at 10pm during the summer, as I often remind myself when we’re still in close proximity to the winter solstice.

  2. Two postscripts:

    However do you get a cat to share sunlit spots, summer or winter? Mine’s very selfish.

    And thank you for commenting on wrenaissance, because your comment led me here to read your blog, which I am much enjoying.

  3. themarvelousinnature

    It’s amazing just what a difference in day length there is between mid-winter and mid-summer. I enjoy the late sunsets, too, although I often find I eat dinner a lot later in the summer than winter because it just doesn’t seem like dinnertime yet when the sun’s still high in the sky at 6pm.

    My parents’ cats are generally willing to share, as long as you’re willing to squeeze. This particular guy doesn’t care if you lay down with your head resting on him, but he’s not about to give up his chosen spot once he has one!

  4. I tend to suffer from the winter blues, so this year I made a determined effort to combat it by taking a walk each day, even if it was only round the block. I’m sure the combination of fresh air, exercise, and just plain getting more daylight has made a difference – this has been the first winter for a long time when I haven’t struggled to get through Christmas and onto the first signs of Spring.

  5. We were drawn to spend the day outdoors in a sunshiny day this weekend, too. The days of sun are so scarce here that letting one pass without feeling it on your face is impossible.

    I feel like your kitty–basking happily in the warmth.

  6. themarvelousinnature

    @ Azz: Glad to hear that getting out regularly has made such a difference for you! I find living in town a little offputting for going for walks, so I really don’t get out as much as I should. I should get a dog so I have something to make me get out every day. :)

    @ Nina: It really is hard to pass up the sun. And you have such a gorgeous place to go out to enjoy it!

  7. Oh yes, the sunshine! We just had a nice weekend full of it. Today I managed to get out a bit and enjoy the sunrays and see some ducks at a local park. The rain comes back in tomorrow….that’s Oregon!

  8. themarvelousinnature

    If the coastal northwest stereotypes are anything to go by, I imagine a weekend of sunshine during the winter out there must be a luxury! The gorgeous scenery would make up for it, though, I’d think. Funny, Oregon’s the only state/province along the west coast I haven’t been to. And I’ve never been to any in winter. But the places I have visited in summer have been breathtaking, rain or shine!

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