I walk to work each day, and these days two things stick out to me. First, the leaves are changing color, which is beautiful. Second, it’s a little darker every morning during my walk. I love the fall, but I can’t help but be reminded that winter is impending. I love winter less. It’s dark more, it’s colder, and even after my super-focused, class-free academic summer research, I find the waning light reminding me of all the things I thought I’d do this year but didn’t. Downer feelings just seem to molder without the sun to dry them up. I take some solace knowing this emotional muddling is a pretty shared experience. That I can identify it as a pattern means I also know the feelings will pass and another year will come, and it means I don’t have to take all such thoughts too seriously.
Our culture doesn’t have seasons.
These changes are so predictable that our bodies actually expect them, and try to do some prep work. We might take more pleasure from fatty foods, and those of us with facial hair may find it suddenly easier to grow a Decembeard than it was to make a Maystache. We’ll also start sleeping more, and in general, later. All this makes some sense. Our bodies are helping us hunker down to get through the dark and cold. And when I grew up in the flatlands of central Illinois, that dark-coldness was very real. The funny thing is that I’m now sciencing it up in northern California, where seasons are far less dramatic, but I still feel these seasonal changes. And that points to an important issue – our culture doesn’t have seasons (maybe summer break aside). We work the same hours, we’re expected to keep up the same vigor for productivity and personal day-to-days. And so there’s a conflict between what we feel and what we’re expected to feel.
This conflict of artificial, socially-dictated time and Nature’s time is kind of like the difference between our circadian rhythms and our modern light environment. Just like with seasons, our bodies evolved to anticipate the day-night cycle, and so our bodies get very confused when the light we see doesn’t match the timing of sunrise and sunset. The sudden perceived difference between internal and external time, like we experience in jetlag, shift work, or even waking up to alarm clocks instead of letting our sleep cycles end themselves, feels crummy. It does damage too, as your body lurches internally trying to realign itself to the new perceived day. Happily, evidence is mounting that this damage heals when time stabilizes. Unhappily, we have a lot of artificial timing signals in the modern environment – think of school schedules, street lights, and smart phones in bed – and chronic disruptions to our sense of time like that can add up to increased disease risk, and even lasting behavioral changes when these are experienced early in life. So we need to have a global discussion about how we deal with time as part of our health and wellbeing, and we’re starting to do that.
Daylight savings time is a cultural artifact of trying to make social time fit the outside world better.
When I tell people I’m a circadian biologist, a satisfying number of people now have some idea what I’m talking about. And in one way, seasonal change is often brought into the conversation by way of day light savings time. Daylight savings time is a cultural artifact of trying to make social time fit the outside world better, but it is also an imposed jetlag on most of the population, meaning most of us feel crummy losing an hour, and actually are less able to function for a while, as evidenced by the spike in traffic accidents the next day. Human biology does have circannual rhythms – yearly cycles that change with the seasons – but we don’t know a lot about them, and so building social artifacts to deal with them well is a challenge.
Some people experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which peaks as winter is waning, around February. I’ve certainly had a taste of that, though thankfully nothing too severe. Some people experience insomnia with the changing days. Some people just want to sleep all the time. Bright lights in the morning – dawn simulators – can help, and are often recommended as antidepressants for SAD. But I have to wonder whether some of the difficulties we have with winter come from fighting the change instead of accepting it. Just like light at the wrong time of day confuses our brains and disrupts our bodies, it seems possible that light at the wrong time of year might have a similar effect. If that was so, then it would be reasonable that some people would be more sensitive than others, which might account for why some people are more affected than others. This is just a hypothesis, and not one that is easy to test, since I don’t have the money to pay large numbers of people to live without electric lights for years, and then measure if more or less of them get depressed, while somehow controlling for the depressing effects of not knowing what happened in Game of Thrones for so long.
Winter comes no matter what, it seems.
Winter comes no matter what, it seems. And anyway, living without technology is not a solution I expect the world to embrace. But I’m curious: did my growing up in a place with severe seasons predispose me to expect big changes every year. Was the lack of that change why living in San Diego was hard for me? How do we begin to know such things – build biological time into personalized medical advice? For both daily rhythms and seasonal rhythms, what I’ve tried to do is appreciate that time matters in our lives. Day to day, and season to season. I think the next step is to understand how those rhythms work in people, and try to discover not just the commonalities of biological timekeeping, but the personal differences that might let us know if, for example, someone from Illinois would be happier where the winter is harsher, because it matches the expectations their body set through early life experience. Or conversely, maybe we’d all be happier if there was enough light to make everywhere seem like summer all the time (we know the answer to that one is “no”, by the way).
To that end, here are a few tips to help you prep for the time change.
- Start going to bed earlier.
Getting an extra hour in the fall doesn’t seem to hurt much, but losing one in the spring is hard. In either case, it’s not a bad idea to make smaller adjustments to your schedule in the days ahead of the change so your body has a smooth transition to the new time.
- Listen to your body.
If you feel like winter is really bringing you down, take time to do something good for yourself, and consider getting and using full spectrum bulbs to help you wake up each day.
- Remember that winter comes to us all.
If you feel snowed under, you’re not at all alone. It’s natural, and it happens more for some than others. Try to sleep and eat regularly, and if you’re feeling really SAD, there’s plenty of professionals (if not friends) able to help get you through to the spring.
If you get the chance, make a snow man or woman for me. It’s fun. Living in California, I miss the snow from when I grew up. Thanks in advance.
Dr. Benjamin Smarr studies the temporal structures that biological systems make as they move through time. An NIH research fellow at UC Berkeley, his work focuses on understanding how physiological dynamics like sleep, circadian rhythms, and ovulatory cycles are shaped by the brain, and how disturbances to those cycles gives rise to disease. Dr. Smarr is also an advocate for scientific outreach, and routinely gives public lectures and visits K-12 classrooms to help promote the idea that by understanding the biology that guides us, we can live more empowered lives.