Recently, I went on a vacation to the US Virgin Islands. When I left Paradele, it was early spring, so it still felt like late winter. On the island it was summer. When I returned home, I wondered how my body and mind must have reacted to this leap ahead and back in seasons.

People who spend a great deal of time outdoors become “outdoor acclimatized.” These persons are affected less by heat or cold extremes because their bodies have adjusted to the outdoor environments. Acclimatization usually occurs over a period of about two weeks in healthy, normal persons

On the winter side of things, similar to other animals, the human body naturally transforms to undergo an insulin-resistant state. This aids our system to be more fuel-efficient and optimally perform for extended periods of time with a small amount of food. This is a natural occurrence during seasonal changes in all vertebrates. This survival mechanism has been going on for almost 400 million years of evolution. It’s clear how important it is to regulate our metabolism. When seasons change, our brain sends signals to our body to increase its insulin resistance. Our liver can boost fat production, and our adipose and non-adipose tissues can store fat to prepare for winter.

The command-and-control area of the brain is located deep in the spot between our eyebrows, close to the hypothalamus. This low brain area, which maintains the hypothalamic dopamine activity, is vital for maintaining the insulin-resistance state. It may sound weird, but a decreased level of dopamine activity has also been discovered to be associated with obesity and Type 2 diabetes. For certain people, this annual cycle of insulin resistance turns back to an insulin-sensitive state usually during late winter and early spring to prepare for the summer season and the abundance of food.

And what about our brain’s reactions? Scientists have long believed the brain is vulnerable to seasonal shifts. For instance, headaches are more frequent in the fall and spring, mental health may decline during winter, and some symptoms of brain diseases such as multiple sclerosis vary with the seasons. If a change of season affects your mood, you may also experience a loss of appetite, low motivation, and a change in sleeping patterns.

It is believed that less sunlight can affect the production of serotonin and melatonin in some people, which can cause difficulties with sleep and mood [Seasonal Affective Disorder SAD]. Serotonin production depends on daylight. Melatonin (for sleep) is triggered by the darkening of the day into night but the process actually starts its cycle when you wake p and encounter daylight. Negative shifts in production usually occur when you move into autumn and winter and spend less time outdoors and in sunlight. Of course, that’s not the case for people who live in St. John kinds of tropical climates, or for people who are outdoors during the day in the colder months anyway. Though those people may not be exposing much skin to sunlight, it often affects us through the eyes.

The longer spring and summer days allow more endorphin, testosterone, and estrogen to be released.  It has been suggested that this seasonal readjustment of hormones stresses our bodies and we react with a feeling of tiredness.

My reading on all this seems to indicate that it takes about two weeks for the brain and body to adjust. My ten days of summer on the island weren’t enough to go into summer mode, but it must have had an effect on me. And then the return to cold weather must have flipped the switch back.

I never feel affected by the setting back or forward of clocks as happens to some people. I do feel drawn to water in spring and summer. Are you feeling any spring fever this week? How about cabin fever?

We had some summer weather for a week this April in Paradelle. temperatures in the high 80s. People out in short pants and T-shirts. People sitting outside at cafes. Then the following week, it was back to the low 40s. This weekend, I had to pull in my flats of seedlings because at night it was in the low 30s.

Oh, my poor brain and body. What are these seasons doing to you?

A Perfect Storm for Depression

SAD woman

When I saw a headline this morning warning of a “double whammy of pandemic blues and seasonal depression” my first thought was that it was more of a perfect storm.

We are now in our ninth month of COVID-19 and hopeful that while we hit a daily record of 100,000 daily cases, we might be able to avoid a simultaneous flu season. The past week (or months or year) of election madness has certainly affected Americans. And the triple threat is the annual arrival of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

That term – “perfect storm” – has evolved in its usage from a literal meteorological storm to other disaster scenarios. It came into wide usage with The Perfect Storm  2000 film that was based on the 1997 non-fiction book of the same name by Sebastian Junger. The film tells the story of the Andrea Gail, a commercial fishing vessel that was lost at sea with all hands after being caught in a storm at sea. Though there are earlier references to storms that came from an unusual confluence of conditions for storm creation, the popular usage of the term “perfect storm” was coined by Junger. He had a conversation with NWS Boston Deputy Meteorologist Robert Case in which Case described the convergence of weather conditions as being “perfect” for the formation of such a storm at Halloween 1991.

I’ve seen a good number of articles about coping with pandemic depression. I’ve seen advice on dealing with the election news – mostly saying turn off your screens. I have posted in past years about SAD which I know I have suffered from in my adult life, even before there was a name for it.

What might have been called “winter blues” at one time happens when temperatures drop and the hours of sunlight shorten and (depending on where you live) we spend less time outdoors and more time inside. It is estimated that more than 66 million Americans display symptoms of mild or severe depression that might be associated with SAD during the fall and winter months.

This rise of depression that happens every fall is expected to be greater in 2020. One psychologist, Dr. Martin Klein, says that studies have shown that around 80 percent of all Americans are dealing with some form of depression or stress since the pandemic began. That triples the country’s depression rate.

I have been sitting outside for a half-hour each morning with my coffee no matter what the weather has been because I know that SAD occurs mostly in the fall and winter with the literal decrease in sunlight. Sunlight helps to maintain human circadian rhythms and sleeping-waking cycles, as well as other biological functions of the human body. Less sun exposure disrupts those rhythms.

There are also chemical changes, such as a decrease in hormones like serotonin and melatonin, and vitamin D. All of those are associated with mood, anxiety levels, and sleep patterns.

You can also negatively affect mood and raise your blood sugar levels in the colder months if it means you get less exercise, drink more alcohol, and eat more sugary and carbohydrate-rich junk and comfort foods. A lot of us may have fallen into that pattern well before the seasons changed due to the pandemic. Some people have been calling this “Pandemic Affective Disorder.”

As we have been warned about the possibility of flu and COVID-19 occurring simultaneously and having some of the same symptoms, the symptoms of SAD are similar to other forms of depression. This is what is usually listed as symptoms of SAD: irritability, lowered mood and energy, increased anxiety, fatigue, a lack of libido, and difficulty paying attention.

SAD can be more severe and it is classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a subset of major depression, officially known as “major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern.”

Some differences in SAD symptoms as compared to chronic major depression include SAD tending to cause people to overeat and sleep longer and later. Major depression usually causes weight loss and erratic sleep schedules.

It is only somewhat optimistic to say that at least the effects of SAD tend to go away once the seasons change because that is at least five months away and we still don’t know when the pandemic will dramatically subside or end.

Here in the northern part of the Northern Hemisphere, November through February are the toughest months.  So what can we do to combat SAD?

The suggestions given in the past still hold. Eating healthy and regular exercise (even if that is only neighborhood walks, runs, and bike rides) and increased daily exposure to sunlight.

The sunlight can be my half-hour outside in the morning (try to expose as much skin as possible – which is harder to do as the weather gets colder), sitting inside by a sunny window (sunlight through glass is not as effective) and even special lightboxes with bulbs designed to mimic sunlight.

In all cases of depression, the advice is to interact with people and stay engaged. Unfortunately, depression often makes you want to do the opposite, and the pandemic restrictions have also limited your options. A perfect storm.

Monitor your physical and mental health and don’t be afraid to seek professional help if either seems to be negatively changed.

Cracking Up

“Of course, all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work—the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside—the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don’t show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within—that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again. The first sort of breakage seems to happen quick—the second kind happens almost without your knowing it but is realized suddenly indeed.”
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up”

cracked plate

The end of the year and winter sometimes puts people into a kind of depression. When I was on the winter break of my high school senior year, I discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-Up” essays that were published in Esquire magazine in early 1936.  It was a “deep and dark December,” as Paul Simon described it for me.

A winter’s day
In a deep and dark
I am alone
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow

I’ve built walls
A fortress deep and mighty
That none may penetrate
I have no need of friendship,
friendship causes pain
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain

Don’t talk of love
But I’ve heard the words before
It’s sleeping in my memory
I won’t disturb the slumber of feelings that have died
If I never loved I never would have cried

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me
I am a rock
I am an island
And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries

I was in my room with my books and poetry, Friendships had caused me pain and I felt that being alone would be safer.

Fitzgerald wrote: “I began to realize that for two years my life had been a drawing on resources that I did not possess, that I had been mortgaging myself physically and spiritually up to the hilt.” He’d “cracked like an old plate.”

He had a bad decade with his wife, Zelda, suffering her first breakdown and hospitalization, and he found himself in his mid-30s deep in debt and broken. He went to Hollywood to work on movie scripts because it paid well. He drank a lot. He worked on his final novel, The Last Tycoon.

In the second part of his essay, “Pasting It Together,” he went into the third person and said “This writer told about his realization that what he had before him was not the dish that he had ordered for his forties. In fact—since he and the dish were one, he described himself as a cracked plate, the kind that one wonders whether it is worth preserving. ”

I identified with that kind of wondering about whether it was worth repairing and preserving that “plate.”

Ernest Hemingway was a friend to Scott – but not a good friend. It was a friendship that caused pain. They were so very different in life and in print and Hemingway said some unkind things about Fitzgerlad. That bothered me because I liked both of them as writers.

Hemingway wrote and seemed to believe that “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break, it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

I think I believed in a kind of optimism that I would be “strong at the broken places.” I believed that I could come back from these depressive periods stronger.

I don’t believe that anymore. I reread “The Crack-Up” this past week and I am closer to Fitzgerald who wrote that “A clean break is something you cannot come back from; that is irretrievable because it makes the past cease to exist.”

I have come back from several depressive periods. Fitzgerald did not. He wrote in 1940 to his daughter Scottie that he had “the sense that life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat, and that the redeeming things are not ‘happiness and pleasure’ but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle.”

That mixed message seems to be where he was in his life when on December 21 1940 F. Scott Fitzgerald died of a heart attack in Hollywood at the age of 44.

I am glad that I haven’t arrived at the place where Fitzgerald and Hemingway were at the end of their lives.

Fitzgerald wrote that “This is what I think now: that the natural state of the sentient adult is a qualified unhappiness.” There is no hope there, and he continued “I think also that in an adult the desire to be finer in grain that you are… only adds to this unhappiness in the end—that end that comes to our youth and hope.”

I have hope, and part of that hope is that you also have hope and do not find yourself in the state of Fitzgerald at the end. It was difficult for my high school self to get out of that room and be with old or new friends, but those two things were so important to my “pasting it together.”

I came to agree more with the line of poet John Donne that Paul Simon was rejecting in his song: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent.”

Drawn to Water


I have always been drawn to water. I’m not alone in feeling this pull.

Perhaps there is something to that lunar pull that moves the tides.  The “lunar effect” is usually defined as a real or imaginary correlation between specific stages of the roughly 29.5-day lunar cycle and behavior and physiological changes in living beings on Earth, including humans. Examples of this belief have been found in ancient Assyrian/Babylonian writing.

There have been plenty of studies to consider any effects on humans. Some studies have found no correlation between the lunar cycle and human biology or on our behavior. One that I found seemed to indicate that there seems to be an effect on humans based on the amount of moonlight rather than tidal pull. An ancient belief that survived into modern times was that the monthly cycle of menstruation in women was lunar based, ut that is now considered a coincidence in timing without lunar influence.

I don’t feel any monthly pull to water, but like Ishmael in the opening of Moby-Dick, I do find myself drawn to the ocean several times a year.

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”

Maybe Ishmael was suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). As someone who grew up with time at the Jersey Shore every summer of my life, I find that “high time to get to sea” more of a spring event than a November one.

My most regular pull to water is to local waters. There are brooks and creeks in the woods where I frequently walk that I am always drawn to visit.  There is something in the tumbling water that I find very appealing.

That is magnified when I visit waterfalls nearby, from the small Hemlock Falls that was childhood destination to the Great Falls of the Passaic River. (Take a look at the Great Falls.)

There is science to this attraction. The dispersion of water from waterfalls, waves, or even lightning and water evaporation from plants, create hydrogen ions by splitting water molecules. The negative electrons join up with other free positive electrons in the air neutralizing their electrical charge. That is why people buy air ionizers (negative ion generator) which uses a high voltage charge to ionize air molecules and generate negative ions. Negative, in this case, is a good thing. A trendy, new-age version is the Himalayan salt lamps that are sold.

Naturally-occurring negative ions are said to have health benefits including enhancing the immune system, increasing alertness, productivity, and concentration. There are claims that you can get relief from sinus, migraine headaches, allergies, and asthma attacks.  Some tests have shown that negative ions can stabilize alpha rhythms in the human brain. (Alpha waves usually occur when we are awake and relaxed.)

I would consider water therapy as effective as “forest bathing” and other get-into-nature therapies.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink,” is a common English proverb.  It’s an old one, going back to 1175 in Old English Homilies: “Hwa is thet mei thet hors wettrien the him self nule drinken” which is translated as “who can give water to the horse that will not drink of its own accord?”

You can lead people into nature or to the water, but they may not drink in its benefits. You have to be drawn towards it on your own.

As a child, Cub and Boy Scout and independent hiker and walker of the woods, I discovered early on that I was attracted, like other animals, to water. Animal paths made by deer and other creatures inevitably lead to a water source. Another quote from Moby-Dick, talks about this attraction to water and not only the sea.

“Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. There is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries–stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region. Should you ever be athirst in the great American desert, try this experiment, if your caravan happen to be supplied with a metaphysical professor. Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.” 

As I wander in the woods, naturally-made paths do lead downhill because they were first worn by rainwater and then by animals making their way to a pool, pond or stream.

We are drawn to water. And that is a good thing.

Tick Tock Your Internal Clock

Phones and computers are good about adjusting to turning back the clocks. People don’t adjust as easily. Our internal clocks have no settings that can be reprogrammed.

Hey, it’s only an hour difference. “But it turns out that the master clock in our brain is pretty hard-wired, ” says Fred Turek, director of the Center for Sleep & Circadian Biology at Northwestern University.

Our internal clock is synchronized to the 24 hour light/dark cycle and daylight is a primary cue to reset the body’s clock each day.

It should only take a few days for your body and brain to catch up, but that the shift to daylight saving time in the spring, when we lose an hour of sleep, is linked to an increased risk of heart attacks and traffic accidents according to a new study which found an increase in the number of patients admitted to the hospital for a atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat) in the days following the spring time change.

One of the newer findings has been that the internal clock in our brains that we often refer to is supplemented by a time-keeping mechanism in every cell. Our bodies seem to like routine and when we disrupt those with clock changes or changes to our sleep or eating routines, it can increase the risk of metabolic disease.

Add to this the decrease in daylight also throws off routines, socialization and our emotional rhythm.

Okay, enough bad news. What can we do to compensate?

  • Go to bed an hour or so earlier.
  • Maximize your exposure to daylight in the morning hours.
  • Use foods that nourish – add protein sources like fish, nuts and other plant-based proteins such as tofu are good if you’re trying to cut back on meat.
  • Salmon and tuna are good for getting omega-3 fatty acids which regulate mood by quieting down the body’s response to inflammation.
  • Eat dinner early and keep it light or even make midday your main meal.

Illustration Credit: “Tic Toc” by Katherine Streeter for


Dealing With Less Daylight


You remembered to turn back your clock last night to end Daylight Saving Time. Are you feeling any effects this morning?

People sometimes say that they got “an extra hour” of sleep, but really what you did is mess up your circadian rhythm. Much research has shown that this can disrupt our biological clocks and impact our sleep-wake cycles, hormone release, eating habits, and more.

The biological clock of circadian rhythm regulates many important biological processes, such as hormone production and sleep patterns, and we know that it is very much controlled by external cues in the environment. The big influence is light.

You have probably seen articles in recent years about shutting down lights and screens that emit light (TV, computer, phone, tablet) in order to let our brain know it is night and time to go to sleep. The fact that many of us do not do this leads to the popularity of sleep medications from melatonin and the many pain relievers plus “PM” (antihistamines to make you drowsy) to prescription sleep aids.

Changing sleep-wake cycles by an hour has an effect on the internal clock in our brain and it can change the chemicals (like melatonin) that affect sleep, metabolism, mood, bodily functions, and productivity.

This morning, do you feel sleepy, listless, or a bit stressed? Do you feel an hour’s worth of better rested? It may take a few days for any negative effects to show up.

Daylight saving time changes have been found to result in higher rates of automobile and workplace accidents, more roadkill accidents (the deer don’t change their clocks), and even a slight increase in heart attacks and stroke amongst those already at a higher risk.

Suggestions to deal with the end of DST include NOT using caffeine and other stimulants to adjust. To avoid the Seasonal Affective Depression (SAD) that comes on with shorter days get outside in the sunlight as much as possible. Maybe an extra lunchtime walk. Alternatively, there is light therapy to compensate, but getting outside is easier and cheaper.