Sunlight, Winter Blues and Alcohol


Does the lack of sunlight and the “winter blues” force people to drink more alcohol? The holiday spending frenzy, lack of sleep, family strife, working overtime and fatigue seem reason enough to have a few more drinks of alcohol than usual. It is also thought that the winter time isolation causes people to drink out of depression which goes hand-in-hand with the boredom of living in the northern regions.

Maybe it is not just the cold, stress or loneliness. Natural light and fresh air can also be a factor in health and alcohol cravings. Though it might sound strictly psychological, there is also a physical side to darkness and drinking alcohol.

Here is an interesting rat study. In 1973, Dr. Irving Geller, Chairman of the Department of Experimental Pharmacology at the Southwest Foundation for Research and Education conducted an experiment on stress and the drinking habits of rats. It was noted that rats preferred plain water during the week, but went on alcoholic drinking binges on the weekends. At first the behavior seemed typically human, but the rats did not follow any kind of work and play schedule. This puzzled the scientist until it was noted that the automatic switch on the lights was out-of-order and the rats had been in constant darkness over the weekends. Just by leaving the rats in darkness triggered alcohol cravings within them. Dr. Irving Geller referred to this as “darkness-induced drinking phenomenon.” He relates it to the work reported in 1963 by Nobel Prize winner Dr. Julius Axelrod, who found that the rat pineal gland produced more melatonin during the dark nighttime period than when it was light.

Dr. Geller later went on to experiment with injections of pineal melatonin to rats kept on a regular light-dark cycles and not subjected to any anxiety. The injections alone turned these rats into alcoholics. Dr. Geller stated that “it is only through such animal studies that one can hope to attain a clearer understanding and perhaps an ultimate treatment or cure, or both, for alcoholism in humans.”

I know from observation that several co-workers in the military needed a few beer to help them induce sleep. One guy admitted that he tried various other treatments and vitamin supplements, but nothing else seemed to help. So, maybe there is something to the body’s natural sleep cycles and alcohol cravings.

Aside from alcohol consumption, darkness can also trigger depression in some people. SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), a condition that occurs in some depressed people, takes place during the Fall and Winter months. Fortunately, it can be controlled with regular exposures of natural light and even sun-tanning beds. Part of the reason that our university “Study Week” was in the middle of February was because of the high-stress and depression overcoming several students during these winter months. Anyone who studied at a prairie university or college can relate to this.

The type of work that people do can also trigger this depression and alcohol craving behavior. Shift workers and indoor workers (eg. Factories and offices) often socialize in bars and drinking establishments. In reality, outdoor and well-lit environments would be healthier for them.

Children are also more subject to this darkness, depression and possible alcohol addiction. With the skin cancer scare, they told to avoid the sunlight. They spend more time behind computers and indoors. Over-protective parents drive them to schools with minimum physical education programs. It makes me wonder if this lack of natural light is going to make them more prone to depression and alcoholism?

When I was first in the Canadian military, I found a big difference in health, outlook and drinking habits by switching my job as a shift-working Morse code operator to a field unit radio operator. Maybe the new work was more interesting, but there was considerably more out door and sunlight time involved as well. While myself and other soldiers might have griped about adverse climatic conditions, the outdoor living was still a healthier option than working indoors, hunched behind a desk…in a dimly lit office.

How much sunlight is needed? According to a university text book, something like 10 minutes of facial exposure is the bare minimum. This seems a bit low to say the least. I would bank on at least an hour a day, with some activity. Of course, if someone has been living like a mole for months at a time, they have to gradually expose themselves to sunlight. Too much sunlight, too soon runs the risk of burning and possibility of pre-mature wrinkles and skin cancer. This explains why our parents insisted that we wear hats and sunscreen.

So, if you are feeling a bit of the winter blues or craving a drink, it might be an idea to try out a tanning booth, go for a walk or hit the ski slopes.

Learn more in Simple Secrets to Handle Your Alcohol Better: Student’s Edition.

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