Get Into The Rhythm: How seasonal changes affect emotional ones

Spring is on its way! RI has been shivering under the icy breath of winter, but the days are growing longer and the earth is tilting on its axis. Soon, buds will be bursting into clouds of bright green and crocuses will be pushing their noses up through the snow. A great number of people are going to find themselves horny as hell – and there will also be those who instead become antsy, anorexic or unable to sleep. We may attribute all of those things to various random causes in our personal lives, but there is a vaster, more universal system at play here which governs humans, plants and animals alike.

As far back as the 18th century, researchers noticed that certain plants would open their leaves at sunrise and close them at sunset even in the absence of lighting cues. But it was not until 2017 that three U.S. biologists brought international attention to the underlying phenomena. Jeffrey C. Hall at the University of Maine, Michael Rosbash at Brandeis University and Michael W. Young at Rockefeller University shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their discoveries of the genetic and biomolecular mechanisms by which the cells of all living organisms mark the 24-hour cycle of day and night: circadian rhythms. It is now known that the circadian clock is involved in every piece of human physiology; it influences everything from emotions to endocrinology to metabolism.

So – what exactly is circadian rhythm?

Circadian rhythm is the 24-hour internal clock in our brain that regulates cycles of alertness and sleep by responding to changes in our environment. Our physiology and behavior are shaped, in essence, by the Earth’s rotation on its axis. For example, your body temperature rises just before dawn, enabling you to feel alert and ready to start the day; it drops again at night to help promote sleep. This biological circadian system has evolved to help humans adapt to changes in our environment. With its help, we can anticipate changes in radiation, temperature, and food availability. When your body clock is disrupted or thrown off balance by changes in sleep patterns, increasing or decreasing light exposure or other alterations in schedule, your natural circadian rhythms can go off kilter, leading to an astonishing array of symptoms and behaviors.

One such disruption is the coming of spring.

In animals, seasonal changes over the year trigger phenomena such as breeding, migration, and hibernation. In humans, these changes are more complex – reactions vary widely from individual to individual and some are more vulnerable than others. About 6% of Americans have symptoms severe enough to require medical treatment for seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

The primary instigator is a small endocrine gland in the brain called the pineal gland. The pineal secretes melatonin, which influences our sleep/wake cycles. The production of melatonin is drastically affected by available light – in the winter, we produce more of it, which can cause depression, fatigue, oversleeping, weight gain, and irritability. In the spring when available light increases, we can experience anxiety, weight loss, and insomnia. And, like the animals, we can be driven by an overwhelming urge to mate.

Motif spoke with Dr. Gene Jacobs, a Warwick-based clinical psychiatrist who sees the effect of seasonal change every year. He told us that patients with bi-polar disorder are particularly sensitive to the effects of light, and added: “the balls in a male’s scrotum raise or fall with temperature –  in winter, when cold, they retract more into body, and in summer, when hot, they drop away from body.”  

But that’s not all – disruptions in our circadian rhythms can accelerate, or even cause, medical conditions such as asthma, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and neurological disorders. 

Considering the possible consequences, is there anything we can do to protect ourselves from potential repercussions? Fortunately – yes. 

• Get out of the house! Expose yourself to as much natural light as you can, right now. This decreases the shock to your system when daylight lengthens. 

• Get up out of your chair and start moving! Walking and exercising through the winter and early spring months helps to keep your immune system healthy while increasing sunlight exposure. This will help you contend with the pollen and viruses which hit as soon as the plants wake up. Wearing a good mask is protection against both.

• Stay hydrated – this is a good way to keep your system in balance. And eating a healthy, well-balanced diet helps you to be your best year-round. 

• Perhaps, as Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote, “in Spring a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of love.” But unprotected sex can turn into an STD or unwanted pregnancy. In case of sudden overwhelming lust – carry condoms!