Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

December 5, 2007

HERB HUNTER: Are you SAD about winter?


Avid readers of my column know how I feel about the upcoming winter solstice and the anticipation of longer days.

Quite simply, I can’t wait for the daylight hours to reverse their present trend and begin to extend. It’s not because I’m a sub-par golfer, use solar energy to power the television in our home or look forward to more opportunities for yard work. As my lovely wife, Julia, will attest, I cannot stand yard work.

I am driven by a desire for daylight so overwhelming that I have gone as far as to support the concept of Daylight Savings Time in this very column. That’s right, a subject as divisive to Hoosiers as abolition during the Civil War, DST, has been promoted by yours truly in this very column.

Why? What type of madness could possibly justify such an extreme position? At worst, it may be a form of madness but, at the very least, it is a disturbing mental condition that can manifest itself through physical symptoms. The torment in some unfortunate victims may be excruciating to the point of seeking relief through any means possible. This includes staring at glowing light bulbs, firmly grasping travel brochures from Hawaii and supporting extreme political concepts that involve changing every clock in your home twice each year. Of course, I refer to the “winter blues,” more commonly known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, appropriately given the acronym of “SAD.”

I admit it. I don’t like winter. However, it’s not because of the miserable weather, freezing temperatures and endless ice but rather the long, long, nights and lack of daylight. To be honest, I don’t know if I have a clinical case of SAD, but many of us suffer from some of the symptoms during the winter months.

I have written several columns, over the years, reviewing various treatments for SAD; most of which consist of the aforementioned staring at glowing light bulbs and booking winter trips to sunny climates for a couple of weeks. So, today I thought I would focus on a short history of SAD, with a few helpful suggestions for making it through this winter.

In my opinion, SAD originated when our earliest mammalian ancestors decided to forego hibernation one winter. On the other hand, SAD may have existed before that event occurred. After all, at some point, an earlier mammalian ancestor must have thought that it would be a great idea to sleep all winter long, perhaps after dealing with SAD for several winters. Regardless of when SAD first occurred, the earliest documentation of SAD is found in the “Getica.” The “Getica” was written in 551 AD by the Goth scholar, Jordanes, and documented the European Goth lifestyle, including the presence of SAD during the winter months.

In the early 1800’s, SAD was described in Iceland by the Icelandic word, “skammdegisthunglyndi.” “Skamm” means short, “degi” means day, “thung” is heavy, and “lyndi” means mood. Put it all together, and the Icelanders, who suffer through some of the shortest days during the winter months, have summed up SAD as “short day, heavy mood.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Our modern understanding of SAD began in 1984, when Norman Rosenthal, MD, wondered why he became sluggish and depressed following a move from his native South Africa to New York City during the winter months. He began experimenting with artificial light, increasing the amount of light he was exposed to during that winter and found it made a difference in his own mood. Rosenthal later estimated that 1.5 percent of all adults in Florida suffer from SAD during the winter, compared with 9 percent of adults coping with SAD in the northern United States.

This walk down the SAD history lane is great, but how do we deal with the condition in the here and now? In a nutshell, make an effort to increase your exercise and outdoor activities, if possible, during the winter months, turn on a few more lights when indoors, and if you can swing it, a winter trip to Florida or Hawaii will work wonders. If these techniques fail, you might want to seek medical attention, since, all kidding aside, SAD can become a very serious medical condition. There are medications available to help you cope with the disorder. However, a decision on the proper medication to use should be made by you and your physician.

Which is the greater form of madness, SAD or Daylight Savings Time? We may never know, but I do know that in a couple of weeks, following the winter solstice, on Saturday, Dec. 22, at 1:08 AM, to be exact, the amount of daylight each day will slowly start increasing.

I can’t wait. Happy winter solstice.