Saturday, September 25, 2021

Serotonin, seasonal depression, & the Carolina sun


Maybe you’ve heard of the “winter blues,” especially if you live in the northern parts of the US. This form of depression, known as seasonal affective disorder, is actually recognized by the American Psychiatric Association and has an impact on about 10 million Americans.

Doctors still have a lot to learn about SAD, which is sometimes called seasonal depression, but they know it’s related to the production of key neurotransmitters in the brain, a subject many students learn about in their psychology classes.

During periods of limited exposure to natural sunlight, which we experience when days get shorter in winter, our bodies make less of the feel-good chemical serotonin. This change tends to make us feel groggy and socially withdrawn, or we might have trouble concentrating.

The sun going down earlier can also trigger SAD in certain people because our bodies make a chemical called melatonin beginning at sunset. This one helps us get to sleep. Except, the shorter days and less sunshine during the winter months tend to interrupt our circadian rhythms and make us feel tired, irritable, and sometimes depressed, as our bodies make more melatonin.

A doctor can prescribe medicines if he or she thinks the condition is serious enough, according to the Mayo Clinic. But as Anabelle Baxter, a student journalist at Summerville High School in South Carolina, points out, we can learn a lot about this from people who live in abundant sunshine as well as from our friends, the plants. With the permission of Anabelle and the student newspaper’s faculty adviser, we reprint her story here.

IT’S FEBRUARY, the cold heart of winter. You find yourself hibernating within the confines of toasty walls and technicolor entertainment. “I am the King of Potato Chips,” you think to yourself as you finish the fourth bag of Lay’s Original.

You have quite possibly gained five-ish pounds. You have made a conscious effort not to acknowledge the existence of the world of brisk air and gray clouds outside. You live on your couch. You take seven naps a day. In the midst of this tranquil bliss, you feel sluggish, unmotivated, and casually hungry. Your mood lately matches the muted colors of the season.

This drudgery is nothing new, classified as a normal reaction to the winter weather. But when such behavior is exhibited so extremely that it shares characteristics with major depression, a psychological low point is at hand. Severe de-motivation, general blueness, rapid weight gain, and other symptoms point in the direction of a somewhat rare disorder: seasonal depression.

WARNING! Seasonal depression is not a cyclical version of major depression. Think about it: you can’t just hit emotional rock bottom at the sight of a snowflake and then find yourself in a seasonal euphoria the second you feel sun-kissed. This isn’t Dr Phil.

So what’s to blame?

Sunlight. During the wintertime, levels of heat and subsequently sunlight drop. This reduction of sunlight, in turn, throws off the balance of circadian rhythms, drops serotonin levels, and raises the presence of melatonin.

The circadian rhythms operate as sort of internal body clocks that control our natural sleep schedules, so as sunlight recedes, we may experience randomized and inconsistent sleep habits. And like circadian rhythms, the neurotransmitter melatonin has a profound hold on our sleep frequencies. Serotonin, on the other hand, is a neurotransmitter that affects mood and social behavior. The less of it we have, the crabbier we are. And you thought you just couldn’t dig the Christmas spirit.

Not to suggest that we photosynthesize, but it seems that people have a lot more in common with plants than we thought.

The logical solution to seasonal depression would then be light therapy.

“White light tends to suppress melatonin production and keeps us more alert,” said Russell Hammond, the SHS AP psychology teacher.

The regional catch? We live in South Carolina!

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a snowflake, much less a lack of sunlight here. Consequently, seasonal depression is much less common in this area than it would be in the frozen tundras of Alaska or anywhere in Northeastern America. In fact, seasonal depression seems more like a myth than an actual condition here in the Sunbelt.

But then again, we represent the strongest evidence of humans as being giant walking, talking, fleshy plants.

So is the Garden of Life!

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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