Why do the Norse suffer less from SAD and insomnia?

I dread winter. Truly dread the thought of months of cold, darkness and not least, howling wind. That freezing, howling wind which seems to pierce right through your soul, and leave you feeling half-dead for months. I suffer badly from the ”winter blues” every year, known more scientifically as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

It wasn’t always like this. I used to love winter growing up. I spent every winter in my grandparents home in Norway, where winters are decisively more cold, long and snowy, than in Denmark, my home for the last 20 years. In fact, winter was possibly my favorite time of the year. Not only because winter means Christmas and Christmas means presents, though it did help. No, I loved winter, because we would spend so much time together outside, skiing, skating, making snowmen.

Winter was a fantastic time growing up, so how come I, like so many others, came to suffer from SAD and loathe winter as an adult?

I stumbled upon an intriguing piece of the answer, when I read about a Norwegian study on SAD.

In the Norwegian city of Trøndelag, SAD and the winter blues doesn’t exist. The scientists found no difference in the prevalence of insomnia, sleepiness or bad mood, between summer or winter. In stark contrast to that is Copenhagen, Denmark, where I currently live. Here studies show a prevalance above 10%, likely among the highest rates in the world.

What’s up with that? Why don’t Norwegians suffer from SAD when Danes?

This had to be investigated.

 

What is SAD and why does it make you feel miserable?

SAD and the winter blues can creep up on you. One day you’re going about your day, thinking ”winter hasn’t been too bad this year” and then wham!, you suddenly find yourself suffering and seeing no end in sight.

Scientists and doctors have had some difficulty figuring out what causes SAD, but they seem to agree on 3 factors:

  • Serotonin
  • Melatonin
  • Vitamin-D

Each play an important role in regulating our mood, sleep and physical wellbeing.

Serotonin is a brain chemical with a myriad of effects, not least on mood and happiness. It’s a natural ”feel good” chemical in other words. Production of serotonin depends on several factors, one of them being sunlight. More sunlight, more serotonin.

Melatonin is another chemical that relies on sunlight. It’s used by the body to regulate our circacian clock or ”natural clock”. It’s what makes us sleepy in the evening instead of at noon. Melatonin is produced constantly in the body, but sunlight hitting the eyes, represses production. Which is clever, because it means, it is then produced in the evening when there is less sunlight.

Vitamin D is a crucially important vitamin, but one that many people, living in the Northen Hemisphere, are chronically deficient in. Lack of vitamin D can give many unpleasent symptoms, from brain fog to muscle and skeletal pain. It is always a good idea to get it checked at your doctor, if you feel bad in the winter.

 

What do the Norwegians do different?

Could it be that the norwegians are simply different? Like how people closer to the equator have darker skin to deal with the opposite problem of too much sun?

One study discovered that Canadians of Icelandic heritage did better in the winter than those with a different heritage. This explanation doesn’t seem very likely to me though. There is practically no difference between Norwegians and Danes, they’re the same people, and yet Danes are more affected than Norwegians.

Nope, if we want to solve the riddle of Nordic winter resistance, then culture, not creed, is where we have to look.

I think back at my winters spent in Norway and I recall how everyone enjoyed winter. The long skiing trips on illuminated trails through winter wonderland. Afternoons spent playing ice hockey with my brother and neighborhood kids, then back home for hot chocolate, candle lights and cozying up.

Norway embraces winter like no other place I’ve been.

If you want an example, look at the recent Winter Olympics and how Norway dominated every cross country skiing competition. They say, it’s more difficult to win the Norwegian championships than the Olympics.

On the other hand, Denmark, while having equally cold and long winters, don’t have a culture for winter sports. Part of that is the lack of snow, but even when lakes freeze, you won’t see kids skating  on the ice like you would in Norway. Denmark, like many other places in the world, has a society built for the sun, not the dark.

There’s Christmas of course, which everyone looks forward to, but then after that, down goes the decorations and there’s nothing to celebrate until Easter.

The contrast couldn’t be greater in Norway. Winter time is not only cozy-time, but a time for competition. Skiing competitons, ice skating, hockey, ski jumping, downhill. When your country is doing great in a competition, the urge to strap on skis or skates, suddenly becomes overwhelming.

We already know that cardiovascular exercise increases the production of the happy chemical serotonin. I wonder if this too is part of the explanation. Stay active, be happier.

I  believe these two reasons are what sets norwegians apart. At least on psychologist agrees with me. Kari Leibowitz from Stanford University, spent 10 months in Tromsø, the most northern of Norway’s major cities, and found that people there liked winter much more than those in the southern part of the country. The further south you got, the less positive Norwegians were.

Could it be that simple?

Be more positive, think happy thoughts and you can wish the winter blues away? Cognitive Behavorial Therapy (CBT), which works in much this way, has been shown to be effective against SAD, even as much as the traditional light therapy.

 

My tips for battling the winter blues

Personally, I think it’s a little more complex than that. It’s definitely about outlook, but it’s also culture and opportunity. The danes can’t just strap on skis because there usually isn’t a lot of snow in Denmark. What they can do, and what you can do, is begin changing your winter traditions and habits.

Don’t shut down the Christmas festivities on the day after Christmas. Why not keep those decorations around and let the tree wither on its foot until the pines drop off by themselves. That’s how we used to do it when I was a kid in Norway. Christmas might be a christian holiday, but before that it was Yule, and it didn’t end just because we passed Christmas day. I really think there’s something to keeping that Christmas feeling going just a bit longer. Invite friends and family over in January for home cooked food and treats. Light a fire or candles and take your time to talk and reflect on the year to come. Make ”koselig”, norwegian for cozy, a family tradition.

Take up a winter hobby! If you live in a place with snow in the winter, then you’d be a fool not take advantage of it. Cross country skiing is for everyone. Young and old, men and women, the perfect family sport. It’s kick ass exercise as well. You don’t have snow? Then take up a hobby that gets you moving anyway. Go to a skate rink, join a basketball rec team, brave the elements and go fishing. You have to offset the lack of exercise, you usually would get the rest of the year. Get that serotonin pumping!

I hope that I helped shed some light on this dark subject. Now enjoy that spring is near and days will soon be longer.

Kåre Eriksson

Kåre Eriksson is a danish writer and avid skier. He writes about sleeping better at the danish website Sove.nu.

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