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Uno Dos of Trace: Seasonal Affective Disorder is REAL! Here’s Everything You Need to Know...

7 minutes

Hey, nerd fam. Welcome back to Uno Dos of Trace. Thanks, again, for tuning in. Make sure you click the bell, subscribe, all of those other things that people on YouTube say.

[SIGHS]

It's winter. People feel down in the wintertime. I put on this red shirt to try and get excited. Winter makes people feel low and just gets people into this kind of funk. And we sometimes think it's the weather. But I'm here to tell you it ain't. Cold weather isn't inherently sad. Without cold weather, what would be the benefit of a hot toddy or a warm restaurant, cozy blankets, and slippers, and fireplaces, and snow sports, and hot chocolate. You need cold weather for that. And all those things are happy things, at least for me. So what is it about cold weather that makes people have the blues? I have questions.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Growing up in Michigan, I totally knew people who felt sad in the winter. So they would sit under a light. And then they'd feel better? It seemed so silly. I didn't understand why anybody would do that. And yet, when you live in the north, especially the far north, people report in the wintertime feeling lethargic, more sleepy, feeling less productive. And this is a real thing. Since the 1980s, we've called depression related to seasonal mood, Seasonal Affective Disorder, SAD. And it's a real thing. It's not as common as you think. Most people feel less excited and, woo, during the winter. That's normal. But SAD is a diagnosis. If you just feel down, that's called the winter blues. And it's very common. When it gets dark early, I feel like crawling in bed and just ignoring everything. Maybe you do too. When I lived in northern Michigan, in the summertime it was light until 11:00 PM. I felt so productive. Yeah, fun, woo! And that is important to note. Because in Los Angeles, at the dead of winter, it's 10 hours of sunlight a day. In the high summer, it's 14 and 1/2 hours a day. On Mackinac Island, Michigan, where I lived for a while, the dead of winter is just over 8 and 1/2 hours of sunlight a day, whereas high summer has almost 16 a day. That's an eight hour delta, twice what is in LA. So when seasons change, you might feel different. And that's totally normal. I mean, if you feel really down, talk to somebody, seriously. Generally you're not going to see Seasonal Affective Disorder diagnoses within about 30 degrees of the equator, because humans evolved on this planet on the African continent near-ish the equator. So our brains love light. LA is at 34 degrees. Mackinaw, northern Michigan, 45.8, 46 degrees. SAD it's connected to something called the suprachiasmatic nucleus. It's one of my favorite things. The SCN is the control center for the sleep-wake cycle in our brain, the circadian rhythm that keeps our body going throughout the day. The SCN is connected to the eyeballs and the rods, and cones, and specialized cells in there that tell your SCN whether it's day or night. And as you know, George Carlin said once, tonight's forecast, dark. In a 1958 paper by Hastings and Sweeney, a very specific species of algae was studied. Then it turned out it responded to different wavelengths of light. Green was for resting, red was for gearing up, and blue was for energy, happy time. Nobody really paid attention at the time. But today we know that winter blues and light is a big deal. Because how you feel really can come down to the light that enters your eye buckets. If I'm being frank but non-judgemental, yes, it does seem like just shining a light on your face or whatever isn't going to make you feel any different. But light therapy has been used since the 1980s. And what it does is it makes the SCN respond. It gets it going. That gets more serotonin floating around your brain box, which is the same thing anti-depressants try and do. It also reduces melatonin levels. The melatonin hormone is released to help you sleep. Some people with SAD have higher melatonin. They feel sleepy and lethargic. So that makes sense. But if you shine a bright light on it, the SCN says, oh, oh, oh, no more melatonin. So when you think of the winter blues, it's sort of like being jet lagged all the time. Seriously. It all comes back to light. Light therapy generally uses 10,000 lux cool white or bluish white lights. And those things will definitely tell your SCN it is daytime. But at night, it can keep you awake, which is why I have that thing on my phone and my computer, makes it warmer at night. It's annoying, sometimes, but it's really important for your SCN to know it's nighttime. Because at night you should be like, blue light--

[HISS]

But commonly people aren't like that. Interestingly, light therapy does make people sort of like a slave to the light. You know, like a moth. They're just trying to-- because they have to use it every day, forever. But there is an alternative, cognitive behavioral therapy. And it gives people a, finger quotes, "cure" for their Seasonal Affective Disorder. Behaviorism is used for all sorts of different things, including working with kids with autism. It's very successful there. And it helps people with all sorts of behaviorally connected disorders. Even though SAD is thought of as an emotional disorder, behaviorism can really help. In a study by the University of Vermont, researchers were able to take participants and teach them to challenge negative thoughts about dark winter months and resist behaviors like social isolation and mood affecting behavior. This training then persisted for years, whereas people who were on a lightbox in another group in this study had to break out the lightbox every year like a Christmas tree, which can be depressing in itself. And then sit in front of it, which is socially isolating. Meanwhile, the people who'd received cognitive behavioral therapy were able to kind of grab the reins of their Seasonal Affective Disorder and go out into the world. This is a big deal and can be used in a variety of different scenarios. For example, astronauts don't have a day-night cycle. They don't have seasons. They don't have weather. Astronauts are orbiting so fast, they see a sunrise and sunset about every 90 minutes. So NASA decided, even though these are peak humans, they're still humans. So they swapped out the light bulbs on the International Space Station. They were fluorescent, which is a bluish purple. And instead, now they're LEDs. So they can control the wavelengths of light and give them a more natural sleep-wake cycle. And that's really important, because sleep disruption can cause stress, obesity, and increases in mortality. It's also connected to depression. Whew. So Seasonal Affective Disorder, it's a real thing. Light can help. But it has nothing to do with cold weather. That said, when you're trapped inside, and you're lonely, and you want a boo, or a bae, or a bb, or whatever soft consonant makes you feel warm inside, think about how winter can also be great. Warm and cozy, hot chocolate, comfy sweat pants, sweaters, outdoor sports, skiing, and snowboarding, and sledding, and snow friends, and holidays, and cheer, and incredible food. And whatever makes you feel warm inside, think about those things. Because just because it's cold outside, and dark, doesn't mean it's bad. We ascribe sadness to winter and to rainy days also. But it's not the rainy day. It's us. SAD is diagnosed four times more often in women than in men, which is likely why society didn't immediately believe that it was real. In Canada, 15% of the population experience winter blues. And 2% to 6% experience Seasonal Affective Disorder. Also if you think you might have Seasonal Affective Disorder, pay attention to your family history, because it's associated with that. The SCN is the heart of our daily rhythm. And ask any musician, if your rhythm is messed up, sure, you can play. But it doesn't feel as good. So like my Puerto Rican kin Gloria Estefan says, the rhythm is going to get you. Thank you, thank you, thank you, everyone who has showed up and watched these videos. Make sure you click the bell so you get the notification every time I post a new one. There's a new Hello Science coming soon, I promise. Thanks for watching. I'm Trace. I'll see you in the future.

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Host Trace Dominguez explores seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons. It typically begins in the late fall or early winter and goes away during the spring and summer. Some of the risk factors include being female, living far from the equator, family history, and age. Part of the "Uno Dos of Trace" series.

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