As the land of the midnight sun slides into another winter of long, dreary darkness, the psyches of at least a third of all Alaskans are destined to suffer.
Most will endure, but a few will be pushed into deep depression, even suicide, by the 18-to 24-hour nights.
Deprived of normal amounts of daylight, the human body undergoes biochemical changes in the production of two key brain chemicals: melatonin, a hormone, and serotonin, a neurotransmitter. Melatonin is the sleep inducer, the naturally produced drug that helps ease people into slumber. Serotonin is the pick-me-up, the neuropeptide that keeps them alert and happy.
Remember how you wanted to charge through the long, sunny days of summer? That was the serotonin.
If you got home last night, plopped down on the sofa, turned on the TV and sat there for hours feeling lifeless, that was the melatonin.
Both are linked to the pineal gland at the back of the brain, and that light-sensitive gland is in turn hardwired to the eye. Biochemical researchers have found that as sunlight exposure increases, more serotonin is produced. As exposure to sunlight decreases, there’s more melatonin.
Biochemist Lawrence Duffy of the University of Alaska Fairbanks says Alaskans experience huge, seasonal shifts in these chemicals as decreasing sunlight resets their biological clocks from the long days of summer to the long nights of winter.
Almost every Alaskan will notice the change. Dr. Norman Rosenthal of the National Institute of Mental Health, one of the nation’s leading researchers on responses to seasonal light changes, has noted that even so-called normal people “report that their energy and activity levels are highest in the summer and lowest in the winter; in winter they eat more, gain weight, sleep more, and prefer sweet and starchy foods.”
For about 10 percent of the Alaska population, though, the consequences of extended darkness go beyond a spreading waistline. These people suffer from a form of depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), said Anchorage psychologist Caryl Boehnert.
“What we’re talking about here is not just a mood issue,” said John Booker, director of the Circumpolar Health Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. “It’s more than just being unhappy.”
Some SAD sufferers become suicidal. Others cannot force themselves out of bed to go to work. Alcohol and drug problems arise.
Daily doses of powerful, sunmimicking lights can help a few.
Far more will need to be treated with Prozac or other drugs commonly used to treat depression, Boehnert said.
The healthiest move for some may be to relocate to an area with enough sunshine to shift their body chemistry. Unfortunately, Booker said, few of these people seek the advice of doctors.
“We don’t get anything like 9 or 10 percent of the population looking for help,’ he said.
He thinks undiagnosed problems with SAD may play a roll in a variety of other Alaska social and medical problems, from spousal abuse to alcoholism.
But the connections between SAD and such seasonal problems have rarely been studied, and the biggest social and economic costs of SAD may extend beyond crime and alcoholism.
“Probably as much as a third of the people in Anchorage … aren’t capable of performing as well in winter as in the summer,” Booker said.
One study, Booker said, found that an Alaska hospital patient’s chances of getting the wrong medication doubled in the winter. But that is not only one way in which SAD-style problems manifest themselves. There are also people missing work due to minor ailments, or not getting much work done when they are at work.
“There’s a big chunk of money lost with people taking time off or sleeping at their desks,” Boehnert said. Dark days could be driving down economic productivity for Alaska businesses from November well into February or March.
“If you look at the end of February, the days get back up to where we’re into eight to 10 hours of daylight, but there’s a lag in our reactions,” Booker said. “Your body is sort of responding in a delayed action to the loss of light. It (SAD) actually lasts on into March.
“Lots of people suffer worst in late January and February. Things that wouldn’t bother them normally become insurmountable problems.” Sound familiar? It’s an old Alaska phenomenon commonly known as “cabin fever.”