Alaskans mark solstice as turning point to spring

Residents hunker down to deal with winter's dark side

Posted: Monday, December 19, 2005

ANCHORAGE - Lloyd Leavitt shrugs off the subzero freeze that blankets the Arctic town of Barrow each winter. It's the weeks of endless night that get to him, filling him with insatiable cravings for carbohydrates and sleep and natural light.

"There comes a time when you don't know if it's morning or evening. You get confused," said Leavitt, who has lived all his 49 years in the nation's highest-latitude community.

Leavitt has plenty of company when it comes to dealing with Alaska's dark side. No matter how far south you go, the state is still way north of the rest of the country. That means abbreviated days that get increasingly short as you travel farther north - the flip side of the state's famous midnight sun.

Yes, winter brings shorter days in other states as well, along with extreme cold, so winter doldrums can fester in those places, too. But Alaska is the U.S. vortex of seasonal blues. No wonder residents here eagerly anticipate the passing of winter solstice, the psychological turning point toward spring. It's not the cold, but the darkness that makes winter so hard for many.

The sun won't rise again in Barrow for another month after the solstice, which falls on Wednesday. But for Leavitt and others in the largely Inupiat Eskimo town of 4,500, it marks the countdown to daylight, which also is celebrated in a three-day April festival that precedes the spring whaling season.

In the meantime Leavitt floods his home with rainbow-colored Christmas lights.

"They keep the spirits up," he said.

Winter is a drag to some extent for one out of five Americans, studies suggest. A smaller fraction - mostly women and young adults - suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, a type of depression stemming from decreased daylight.

Nearly 10 percent of Alaskans suffer from SAD to some degree, according to a 1992 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry; in sunny Florida, it's only about 1 percent.

SAD symptoms include lethargy, a heightened desire for sleep, cravings for carbohydrates, feelings of melancholy, fuzzy thinking and loss of libido or sociability, said Suzanne Womack Strisik, an assistant psychology professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She's also a practicing psychologist in the state's largest city, where daylight dwindles to 5½ hours by the solstice.

"There's a feeling like you should be hibernating and carbs are very appealing," Strisik said. "It can be really hard to get up even after eight hours of sleep."

Of course, the majority of Alaskans don't feel any different, no matter what time of year.

Barbara Bowden, a real estate broker who has lived in Anchorage more than 50 years, said she never gets the winter blahs other than complaining about the cold. Only the first two years here did she feel down, a condition she attributes to being homesick for Texarkana, Ark.

Her remedy now for coping with winter: stay active rather than merging with the sofa. Until a few years ago, she raced sports cars. There's no shortage of other activities: skiing, snowmobiling, ice skating, dog mushing, snowshoe hikes, even running and power-walking.

"I tell people coming up here to get up, get out and do something," Bowden said. "Just take advantage of living here."

Sometimes it's not that simple. Severe cases of SAD can be debilitating, even prompting thoughts of suicide. According to experts, however, suicide rates actually peak with increasingly spring light.

"You don't have enough energy to make a plan before then," Strisik said. "It's too much trouble. Once the light starts coming back, there's more energy, but reasoning is still off. There's just enough light to make false conclusions."

Many experts believe the disorder results from prolonged secretion of melatonin, a hormone that affects the biological rhythms in mammals such as sleep and reproduction. According to a leading theory, the extended melatonin secretion reflects the longer duration of darkness, said Teodor Postolache, an associate psychiatry professor and director of the mood and anxiety program at the University of Maryland in Baltimore.

"As the night becomes longer, the duration of melatonin becomes longer in SAD patients and that produces depression and behavioral changes, which are similar to those of certain seasonal mammals," Postolache said. "They are less active, and the appetite and weight increase. Sweets and starches are particularly craved. As the interest in sex decreases, the interest in cookies increases."

While some Alaskans defy winter by embracing it, others cope by exposing themselves to bright-light therapy, which doctors say can be highly effective. Others install full-spectrum lighting in their homes and offices. Some people frequent tanning booths. Some take antidepressant medications. Some self-medicate with drugs or alcohol.

Then there are those who flee the state.

Hawaii is the top choice, followed by Mexico, then Las Vegas, said Brenda La Sane, owner of a travel agency in Fairbanks, where the sun will scrape the horizon for three hours and 42 minutes on Wednesday. It's not unusual for La Sane's clients to run into other Alaskans on their winter vacations abroad.

"I try to get away as much as possible," she said. "The darkness gets to me terribly. I just got back from Anaheim (Calif.) and it made a huge difference visiting for 10 days. I felt so much more energetic.

"Two days after I got back, I was pushing myself to get out of bed."

That's not surprising to Kelly Rohan, an assistant psychology professor at the University of Vermont in Burlington. The travel strategy can backfire, she said.

"The problem is re-entry," she said. "It's like going to sleep on the Fourth of July and waking up on the 24th of December. That can be very jarring."

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