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Published December 19, 2012, 11:35 PM

Positively Beautiful: Shining light on the longest night of the year: winter solstice

In the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice occurs on Dec. 21 or 22 and is a long tradition of celebrating the harvest. But it can also feel like one of the gloomiest times of the year, especially for those who suffer with seasonal affective disorder or winter depression.

By: Dr. Susan Mathison, Areavoices.com, INFORUM

In the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice occurs on Dec. 21 or 22 and is a long tradition of celebrating the harvest. But it can also feel like one of the gloomiest times of the year, especially for those who suffer with seasonal affective disorder or winter depression.

It’s amazing to think that humans have been observing this solstice since back in the Neolithic and Bronze Age times. The famous rock columns of Stonehenge in the United Kingdom were purposely set to point to the winter solstice sunset. Even further back, dating to 3200 B.C., a prehistoric monument, in Ireland, called Newgrange, which is a circular-looking mound built primarily of earth and stones, reportedly has its primary axis pointing toward the winter solstice sunrise. Our forbearers instinctively knew how to use seasonal light to their advantage.

Imagine all the harsh winters humans have gone through over time. For centuries, wintertime has been hard to endure in many areas of the world, and thousands of people, even entire communities, could easily perish if there wasn’t enough food available. Harvesting and preserving food was extremely important, and as the winter grew near, people celebrated the harvest and got together with their neighbors before they were closed off from each other for several months.

The winter solstice was also seen by many cultures as a time of rebirth.

Despite holiday revelry, many feel down because this is the time of year when people in the northern hemisphere get the least daylight. Light is a pretty basic human need, and we rely on the sun to provide us critical levels of vitamin D. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) can leave sufferers feeling sluggish. They might avoid social activities. They may also sleep too much – you might call it hibernating, after all, when the days are dark, it can feel like you’re in a den.

The good news is SAD can easily be alleviated with a noninvasive solution such as light therapy, which simply means sitting in front of a special lamp that mimics sunlight. While 30 minutes is the standard dosage, as little as 15 minutes a day can make a world of difference to a person’s mood and energy levels.

Here are some tips to help, along with light therapy:

  • Get a good night’s rest.

    While it’s always important for all of us to get enough sleep, do whatever you can to rest well. And that may mean doing some light yoga, meditation or reading a book in the evening. One of the best things you can do to sleep better is to turn off the usual stimulations like television, computers, and actually wind yourself down an hour before bedtime – even dimming your indoor lighting in the process.

  • Exercise during the day. Much can be said about the benefits of exercising, and one of the greatest benefits besides elevating mood is it can help you sleep better. Just be sure you don’t overdo and don’t exercise too late in the day.

  • Breathe in some fresh air. As a species, we all need oxygen, so if you’re stuck inside an office or house all day, what you’re actually breathing is man-made air from man-made structures. Even 10 minutes in the fresh air, breathing deeply can help. Just make sure you bundle up appropriately.

  • Eat well. We all need to make good choices for our bodies that don’t add weight or overstimulate us. So if you’re feeling SAD and you choose to eat a big piece of chocolate cake and wash it down with a cup of coffee at 8 p.m., well, need I say more?

  • Stay socially active. At this time of year, it may feel more difficult for some people to connect with others when all they want to do is pull the blankets over their heads. But you don’t have to stay out and party all night. There’s nothing wrong with partaking in light social activities like lunch with a colleague or dinner with a small group of trusted friends in a quiet restaurant, or better yet, at home (potluck anyone?). By keeping your social appointments light, you don’t overwhelm your senses, but you also don’t let SAD get the better of you.

intertime isn’t the only season we should take care of ourselves in ways that are gentle and life-enhancing. The trick is to know your body and emotions and work with them to give you what you need, whether it’s a sunny day in July or a snowy, gray day in December. Then you’ll have the best chance of feeling well all year long.

This column was written exclusively

for The Forum.

Dr. Susan Mathison founded Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo and created PositivelyBeautiful.com.

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