THE FACT OF THE MATTER
BY PAUL HOPKINS
The woman at the supermarket check-out says to me: “It’s very changeable.” As I bag my Pinot Grigio, I say: “I think it’s rather mild for the time of year, what with the clocks about to go back and all.” Another customer says: “And then you go from mild to cold and that’s what gives you the dose.”
I’m alright Jack, I think, having earlier in the day got my flu jab and Covid booster – hence the Pinot Grigio to ward off any potential sore arm.
Weather is, of course, a national obsession with we Irish.
Now, that the evenings are shorter, the nights longer and the temperature is dropping, the accompanying temptation is to stay snug indoors with heat – if you can afford such, that is – rather than making the effort to get outside.
With climate change continuously on the agenda, in one guise or other, it’s no wonder people on the road to the Winter Solstice get waylaid by Seasonal Adjustment Disorder (SAD). I feel sad when the clocks go back, you might hear people say. Others might just as easily say: “Won’t be long now ‘til Christmas.” (Oh, please, let’s not go there).
And, while those who are not affected by SAD dismiss it as some type of yuppie flu, more imagined than real, others will tell you they feel more often depressed during the dank, dark days of winter.
“People who truly have SAD are just as ill as people with any depressive disorder,” says my psychologist friend from Magherafelt, quoting research at the University of Copenhagen. It seems about one in every 10 of us suffers SAD. Such people struggle through autumn and winter and suffer from many of the same symptoms as what is termed ‘clinical depression’. And in the northern hemisphere, as many as one in three may suffer from ‘winter blues’ where we feel flat or uninterested in things and regularly just dog-tired.
One school of thought for the existence of all this sadness is that it is as old as is celebrating the Winter Solstice and has its origins in the proverbial mists of time. Four out of five SAD sufferers are women, particularly – and strangely – those in early adulthood. In older women, the prevalence of the syndrome goes down and some researchers believe this pattern is linked to the behavioural cycles of our ancient ancestors.
“With it affecting such a large proportion of the population in a mild to moderate form, a lot of people in the field feel that SAD is a remnant from our past, relating to energy conservation,” says Robert Levitan, a professor at the University of Toronto.
It seems that when we had the Ice Age, 10,000 years ago, a biological tendency to slow down during winter was useful, especially for women of reproductive age, with pregnancy being very energy-intensive. But now that we have a 24/7 society, we’re expected to be active all the time, all year round.
However, says the good professor, as to why a small proportion of people experience it so severely, that it is completely disabling, we just don’t know.
There are, though, a variety of biological systems thought to be involved, including those involving serotonin, that neurotransmitter that regulates anxiety, happiness and mood. Serotonin may be directly modulated by light. In other words, the more light we are exposed to, the happier and more content we are. Like those long summer school holidays of old when every day seemed sunny and bright – and endless.
When you get to a certain stage in life, as I have, you embrace each season: you have, to paraphrase the poet William Henry Davies, more time to stand and stare. An invigorating walk in a winter wood can work wonders.
According to research at Dublin’s Royal College of Surgeons, exercising in the cold has been shown to stimulate the body’s ‘brown adipose tissue’ – that’s ‘brown fat’ to you and me. This fat is interesting because, unlike white fat which handles energy storage, the brown fellow is involved in heat production and energy expenditure. So as brown fat burns calories to generate heat, it can burn off your excess white fat. Some doctors even call it good fat.
Roaring fires and hot whiskies aside, we all have our own idiosyncratic way of dealing with the dark days of winter. My Aunt Evie would take to the overcoat and the hot-water bottle clutched close to her tummy for the duration – day and night.
No talk of high energy bills back then …