Friday, 19 November 2010

Hibernation season?

Grey days close in, leaves are stripped from the trees, and the seasonal clutch of 'Seasonal Affective Depression Syndrome' articles appear on 'health & lifestyle' media pages. Personally, I reckon SADS comes down to modern industrial economies that make no concession to the desire to just curl up and hibernate until the sun comes back. We're not phsiologically adapted for proper deep hibernation, metabolism shutting down for the duration, nor is the UK cold and dark enough to warrant it. Nor, as a species that left Africa a mere 100,000 or so years ago, are we adapted to short winter days and waking up while the world is still dark. Until the Industrial Revolution, there wasn't much alternative to winter slow-down, huddling around hearth-fires -- just venturing out to top up wood and fuel supplies, or throw a defiant, fire-centred winter festival. But coal, oil, nukes make artificial light, tarmacked over muddy roads to keep trade and transport running, kept machinery clacking over -- and humans rat-racing to keep up. I've found two approaches that help deal with the winter cooped-up, stir-crazy depression: one is ways of upping my sunlight, the other indulging the hibernatory instinct. I suspect most of us use pretty much these strategies to cope without special sunlight SADS lamps.

Getting an allotment has helped immensely: we head down there most winter weekends, just to check it over, and end up spending a couple of hours, usually until the sun goes down -- there's always more than we remembered that we really ought to potter into order. A couple of hours down the allotment seems to provide sufficient sunlight 'fix' to last most of the week, even on a grey day -- out under the open sky it is always much brighter than it looks from inside.

By contrast with outside, inside the house even with the lights switched on is very dim, much lower light levels. This really came home to me after we put a 'solatube' above our home stairwell, to channel natural sunlight down through the heart of the house. On clear days, it's bright as a floodlight, extravagantly stronger than any normal home lightbulbs, even the 120 watt equivalents in our living room. So I recommend solatube or lighttube (google them) as zero-carbon SADS treatments.

Number three 'light and bright' adaptation is going swimming in a tropically heated turquoise pool -- the one just behind our house even has tropic murals painted on the walls at each end. The exercise itself, getting the endorphins kicking along,in itself helps see off depression. Despite having spent a lifetime avoiding organised sports and embracing laziness, even I found that a winter of being cooped up indoors (or in Tube trains) left me craving muscular exertion. Yep, not adapted for proper hibernation.

Hibernatory behavioural adaptations: the unforgiving pace of modern life, at least in London, makes it harder to actually slow down and opt out -- but I find that simply acknowledging those mornings when you just can't tear yourself out of the warm cavern of bed-covers into the cold world, or just want to curl up and drowse, as perfectly justifiable and sensible hibernation helps a lot. So of course do the traditional stodgy warming comfort foods -- soups, stews, puddings, choccies -- and cosy woollies to huddle into.

I wonder what research has been done on relative incidence of SADS in dog-owners and others who spend regular time outdoors in winter, compared with those who don't -- or on change in incidence of SADS after taking up outdoor winter activity?

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