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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Winter Blahs

Air Date: Week of

Got the blahs from these cold and dreary winter days? Deutsche Welle Radio’s Don Macgillivray takes us to London’s Science Museum where there’s a light exhibit to help cure the season’s blues.


CURWOOD: When the sun heads south for the winter, those of us who live up north can end up feeling limp, listless and lethargic. This time of year, millions of people suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, or S.A.D. London's Science Museum just opened an exhibition offering a cure for these winter blahs: a good blast of light. Deutsche Welle Radio’s Don Macgillivray has this report.

GLENN: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Light Lounge here at the Dana Center. A little bit of information about the Light Lounge: we do encourage you to act as normally as you can while you’re inside the Light Lounge. What you have to do is occasionally go outside…

MACGILLIVRAY: Michael Glenn welcomes visitors to the S.A.D. light show. This is rather boring when compared to a light show at a rock concert. Instead of an intensely-colored, wildly flashing experience, we have four bright white fluorescent lights hanging from the walls of this small room. About a dozen people sit on a circular sofa quietly reading.

GLENN: We do encourage you to try not to fall asleep while you’re inside the Light Lounge, otherwise you won’t feel any positive effects, no therapy at all. We can’t guarantee that you’ll feel any positive effects in just one session; it usually takes two or three sessions before you feel any effects of it.

MACGILLIVRAY: The people basking in the glow of these fluorescent lights are limited to a 20-minute session. A longer stay may be more beneficial, but the demand is so high organizers have to move them along to give everyone a chance.

GLENN: Do you have any more questions while you’re standing outside? Thank you.

MACGILLIVRAY: The guide, Michael Glenn, has been on duty here for a week. He’s never suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder before, but the lights are making an impression.

GLENN: I’m definitely feeling a positive effect from the therapy itself. From working outside the Light Lounge I do feel a lot more perkier. I do feel like I’ve got a spring in my step somewhat. I’m here from 12 o’clock to 8 o’clock at night. Usually I won’t be able to get to sleep until one, two o’clock in the morning because my body still thinks it’s the middle of the day instead of the middle of the night. I’m feeling a lot more upbeat and a lot more happy than I usually would be feeling at work.

MACGILLIVRAY: It’s a matter of chemistry: When we lose the sun the penila gland generates more of the hormone melatonin, and melatonin is the substance that makes us drowsy. In the winter, with the short days and heavy cloud cover, too many people become irritated, gain weight, and lose interest in pretty well everything except their beds. All they want to do is lay down and sleep.

This therapy is based on the premise that if the sun refuses to shine, we can always switch on the next best thing: a strong light bulb. To gain the full benefit all you have to do is park yourself before a powerful, full-spectrum fluorescent light box for as little as half an hour every morning. The best of these sun boxes chop off the potentially harmful ultraviolet rays.

MARSHALL: We have such gray, dull weather that I thought it would be rather nice to have some bright light. Well it’s been very gray since Christmas (laughs).

MACGILLIVRAY: Margaret Marshall and her husband, Ian, are beaming on their way out of the Science Museum’s light show.

MARSHALL: I think it affects everybody, and everyone I talk to at the moment seems to be gloomy.

IAN MARSHALL: I think the same as my wife, really. I particularly suffer from dull libido and dull feelings and irritability in the winter. I didn’t feel quite the feeling of elation about being out in the sun, but then I suppose you know this is only for 20 minutes. With the sun you think, wow, this could last all day, you know.

MACGILLIVRAY: For thousands of years the best advice doctors could give S.A.D. victims was to take a long, long winter holiday in the sun. Twenty years ago scientists introduced light therapy to help solve the lethargy. Researchers are now taking a new twist. Mike Ferenczy, biomedical science professor at Imperial College London explains how taking synthetic melatonin at night can fool the brain.

FERENZY: Really what matters is a difference between the amount of melatonin at night and that in the mornings. So if you were to take more melatonin in the evening before going to bed then that would help you sleep and then, because there would be more melatonin in your body, the penila gland wouldn’t produce any more. And so by the time you wake up in the morning the melatonin will have been destroyed and you may wake up with less melatonin than if you hadn’t taken any extra the night before.

MACGILLIVRAY: For some time, S.A.D. sufferers had
been advised to take St. John’s wort to help lighten their lives. But as Professor Ferenczy says, physicians now realize this has been a mistake.

FERENZY: This has been discredited. People have terrible side effects. Even though St. John’s wort is a natural compound, a herb, all the people who have tried to use it for S.A.D. have come to the conclusion it’s not a good thing. People end up with allergies, with skin rashes, and all sorts of problems with it. So be careful with St. John’s wort.

MACGILLIVRAY: After the terrific success of the Science Museum’s exhibition some local café owners looking for innovative ways to increase business are considering installing the special lights to attract more customers in winter mornings. But some people are resisting the artificial goodwill. They think gloomy winters are part of the natural cycle, and when spring finally arrives it’s more enjoyable. It’s something we can look forward to all winter.

CURWOOD: Our report on London’s light exhibit was produced by Don MacGillivray and comes to us from Deutsche Welle Radio.



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