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Sleepy in Seattle

by Howard Hewitt
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Our crack journalist spends 15 minutes as a patient of Dr. David Avery '68, an expert treating seasonal effective disorder in the city that practically invented it.

My 20-plus years in print journalism serve me well. I have made a living out of being a "jack of all trades, master of none." I can have a conversation with about anyone.

But I was not prepared for Dr. David Avery ’68.

Don’t get me wrong—Dr. Avery was charming and very accommodating at the hospital in Seattle, and an incredibly interesting man. He is one of the leaders in his field treating seasonal affective disorder in a region that’s custom-made for the affliction.

But, of course, depression is a disease of the mind.

When I first sat down with Dr. Avery on campus during Big Bash ’08 for an hour-plus interview, I learned much about him and his profession. But as he described the brain and its functions, I was hearing words I’ve never heard before. I wondered, How am I going to write this?

So I asked the good doctor for some time in Seattle to photograph him and to chat a little more. This time I asked him to speak to me as if I were his patient. He was a bit taken aback, but he gave it a shot.

"Folks with winter depression typically feel fine during the summer—sleep and eat normally and have good energy and enjoy life. By the end of the fall and particularly during the winter, they start sleeping in, it’s tougher to wake up, and they get much more lethargic, depressed," he explained. "They often have increased appetite, weight gain. They can’t enjoy things, they don’t have the energy. Their concentration gets to where they actually develop a major depression.

"Then spring comes and they start feeling better again. They are better able to enjoy life, laugh, joke."

Of course there is some irony in the fact that Dr. Avery researches and treats depression in Seattle, a beautiful but rainy and dreary environment for months and months of each year.

"Well, rainfall has two effects," he said. "In general it keeps people indoors. One little-known fact is that even a bright and well-lit office is much dimmer than a cloudy day. When people are indoors they really miss out on that signal that helps to reset their circadian rhythms, and many people make the mistake of not going outside during the winter. The first line of defense against winter depression is to get outside each morning as soon as you get up."

Patients are treated with exposure to bright lights, but Avery is quick to point out there are much simpler treatments.

"Benjamin Franklin was a very wise man," he said with a sly smile. "‘Early to bed and early to rise.’ I think he was a pretty good observer. It’s hard to know what’s cause and effect, but there is an association between a positive mood and people who tend to wake up earlier than people who tend to sleep in. People who tend to sleep in may have more negative moods in general."

So I asked, drawing on those years of not panicking when in over my head on a story: Would this work for just anyone who wants to feel better?

"I think getting light soon after awakening is good," Avery said. "Having it regular and about the same time, that’s good sleep hygiene. From an evolutionary point of view, our ancestors for millions of years had a slow seasonal change in the light-dark pattern. On a day-to-day basis the sunrise might change by a minute or two minutes, but it was a very consistent signal. Our bodies are designed to deal with that. In our modern world we tend to create very erratic light and dark contrasts. The computer late in the evening, turning off all the lights just before bed.

"Of course Friday and Saturday we stay up late and sleep in a dark bedroom in the morning. It creates a jet lag situation, analogous to flying to Honolulu and back in a weekend. I think regular morning light soon after awakening is probably a good thing for most people to do."

You know, for the next four days in the Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. area I got right out of bed and took a morning walk. It works.

Though not a Wabash graduate, I’ve long believed life is all about continuing to learn new things. And you can’t be afraid of a challenge. Dr. Dave helped me a bit with both.

How about a morning walk?