Dark, Sad Days in Winter Call for Happy Lights

Dark, Sad Days in Winter Call for Happy Lights

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we are experiencing a "December drought," with a string of long, dry, sunny days in the 30s and 40s that are atypical of the usual overcast skies and drizzle.

It's been a stunning week, with the daylight lasting past 5:30 at night. I find it makes it easier to get out of bed in the morning, as well.

But just a week ago, we had a long period of heavy rain (over Thanksgiving, we received what is known as a "Pineapple Express," when unusually warm temperatures and heavy rains head north from the tropics).

I noticed it immediately at my desk. Looking outside my window, the woods behind my house were pitch black. And with such cloudy skies, the last of the day's light winked out around 4:30. I also felt a twinge of gloom in the mornings.

I'm not here to complain about Seattle rain. I actually like it. But with all the problems with fatigue that people with MS encounter, the last thing they need is the darker days and longer nights of winter to make it even harder to get out of bed.

As someone who knows the dark season very well, I have some tips for shining a little light into the corners.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is real, my friends

If you discover your mood takes a nose dive after a few days of overcast skies, fog or rain, you might be experiencing something known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.

SAD happens primarily during the fall and winter months, though there are some people who ironically experience its symptoms during the lightest months of the year.

The disorder combines circadian rhythm dysfunction with mood dysfunction, all based on the reduction in available light. Natural light is critical for maintaining healthy circadian rhythms.

Our eyes and brains perceive light as a kind of cue to our body clock so that it knows when it's time to sleep and time to wake up (other cues include eating and activity).

Light exposure inspires the release of certain hormones in the body to maintain this sleep-wake process. For sleeping, the body releases melatonin. For waking up, it releases cortisol.

When natural light becomes less available, our bodies and brains can fall into what is commonly referred to as "winter blues."

SAD and MS

It might be hard to distinguish SAD from ordinary MS fatigue or mood swings. But you may notice you are irritable, sleepy, moody, or lacking in motivation above and beyond what you might normally feel as someone with MS. What's more, you might experience periods of sleeplessness in the middle of the night, as well.

Is it MS, or is it SAD?

It could be either, or it could be both.

MS has a mood-depleting element to it that we are well aware of and which can be severe during a relapse.

But if we experience mood swings while in remission, and they can't be traced to a pre-existing mood disorder or, in the case of women, an issue with menstrual cycles, and these mood swings occur during the fall or winter, they might be caused by SAD.

If it's both, don't be surprised. When you experience winter depression, and it disrupts your sleep, you can experience misperceptions about your current MS symptoms.

For instance, a circadian rhythm/mood disorder like SAD can alter pain perception, making any discomfort you feel seem even worse than before.

Winter depression can also lead to fatigue, which can affect your cognitive judgment. You might experience symptoms of MS and wonder where they come from, then quickly make the leap to exacerbation without first thinking it through.

Being irritable and uncomfortable are part of the reality of living with MS, but when our body's rhythms fall out of alignment, we can suddenly feel like the monster inside us is winning, when really, it's not MS at all, but SAD.

How to deal with SAD if you have MS

Try to stick to the best sleep hygiene regimen possible.

  • Go to bed at the same time every night. Force yourself out of bed at the same time every morning. And don't lay in bed after you've woken up. Get up and move around, even if only minimally.
  • Practice relaxation techniques to facilitate sleep. Yogic breathing, body scans, meditations, and massage are all great ways to achieve a smooth transition from wake to sleep.
  • Skip alcohol at bedtime and coffee after noon.
  • Put away your handheld electronics an hour before bed (their blue spectrum light emissions turn off melatonin production in the brain).

Keep a nightstand journal. Collecting your thoughts at bedtime (and your dreams and thoughts, in the morning) helps release the stress caught up in those thoughts.

Treat your pain. Painsomnia is a condition in which insomnia is caused by pain that is poorly managed. Solutions might be prescribed drugs, over-the-counter medications, topical pain relievers, cannabinoid ointments, TENS (transcutaneous electroneurostimulation), or other pain relieving options.

Use light therapy*. Most commonly, a "happy" light is used upon awakening to help reset one's circadian rhythms. These can be purchased online and are relatively inexpensive.

Happy lights are also referred to as light boxes, and can also deliver light through visors or goggles you wear as you move about in the morning. These lights cast safe rays of full-spectrum light to awaken your brain, inspiring it to release cortisol into the bloodstream. This causes a natural reduction in melatonin and allows for the body and brain to fully awaken on a neurochemical level.

Simply expose yourself to this specific application of artificial light for 15 to 20 minutes, first thing in the morning. That's all it takes to help chase away SAD.

Lucky for us: SAD is treatable

You don't have to live with the symptoms of SAD. Even if you aren't sure your mood dips are caused by the winter blues, you can still use light therapy safely to keep your circadian rhythms intact at any time of year.

We've had a full week of sunshine and bright skies here in the Puget Sound, and I can feel the improvements in my mood. So do my non-MS friends who deal with depression. The meteorologists predict this will last for at least another week, and I can't complain. In fact, I've been super energized all week!

But when the rain returns, I'll be ready with my own happy light to force a gentle reset in the mornings to come. After all, this is Seattle. In spite of this rare "winter drought" we're having right now, there are yet months to go before the days will be reliably sunny again!

*Please note that if you have bipolar disorder, light therapy is not a safe treatment for you. It has been shown to spark episodes of mania in people with this disorder.

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