Winter wonderland

Pub date December 9, 2009

Dear Andrea:

Every year I dread this season, not because I particularly hate the holidays, but because the short, dark days depress me. I talked to a therapist friend and she doesn’t think I have SAD, and says lots of people feel a little gloomy when the days get short. I also notice that I have almost no libido this time of year. I’m single and I usually date, but when it gets dark so early, I find that I just can’t be bothered. I don’t want to meet anyone because I don’t feel like having sex or any sort of intimacy, really. I just want to sit on my couch in my pajamas. Do I have "seasonal libido disorder"? Is this kind of seasonal swing a common thing? I also find I get the stereotypical "spring fever" and can’t wait to go out and meet guys (I’m a girl) when the days get longer. Any ideas?


Poorly Seasoned

Dear Poorly:

You’re not the only one! Even people who need look no further than the other end of the couch often experience a libido-slump in the winter. For the single, who may have to actually leave the house to find a prospective mate, the hurdles are higher. There are all sorts of possible factors, including less exercise and its possibly associated weight gain and/or lack of energy, as well as the bigger push it takes to get up and bundle yourself into cold-weather gear and slog through sleet or slush, as opposed to merely flitting out the door in a darling little sundress whenever you feel like it. There is holiday stress and all those happy couple and happy family images forced down your throat all season, set to the anti-erotic soundtrack of "Winter Wonderland." Feh.

It may turn out that there is something far more elemental going on, though. It appears that you don’t have to be human or trying to avoid Perry Como songs in order to experience a very precipitous drop in libido during the winter. Siberian hamsters, for instance, never have to listen to Perry Como (actually, I looked it up and was entranced by this list of people [besides Como] who famously recorded that nasty thing: Bob Dylan, Tom Astor, George Strait, Tony Bennett, Karen Carpenter, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Eurythmics, Elvis, Goldfrapp, Cyndi Lauper, Darlene Love, Johnny Mathis, Ozzy Osbourne, Dolly Parton, Frank Sinatra, Stryper, the Cocteau Twins, and Enrico Ruggeri) and their libidos completely shut off in the winter.

It turns out that a neuropeptide called, adorably but only coincidentally, "kisspeptin" regulates the release of the reproductive hormones — gonadatropin-releasing hormone and luteinizing hormone — and allows animals (that includes us) to reach puberty, ovulate, and (at least in the hamsters) experience the urge to go out and meet other hamsters. I doubt it will turn out to be this simple in humans, but for the hamsters, kisspeptin is libido. And it turns right off in the winter. They just stop making it. It’s cheering to hear, though, and not just for the hamsters, that hamsters given kisspeptin during the winter still respond to it. It appears that it’s the kisspeptin that keeps the hamsters from reproducing during the Siberian winters, which is very good news for the baby hamsters. And it suggests the possibility for all sorts of future kisspeptin-based treatments, not just for libido and maybe late (or too-early) puberty but for infertility. Yay! But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. None of this works yet, unless you’re a Siberian hamster.

I know I’m weird this way but I always enjoy a sudden sharp reminder that we are, despite our opposable-thumb-wielding, Wikipedia-consulting ways, really just very large hamsters. We are living in real bodies that exist on a real planet (with seasons) and that have barely changed since our tree-swinging days. Our bodies know this, even if our monkey minds often get too distracted by the bright shininess of modern technological existence to pay attention. Of course the seasons affect us.

So what can you do? Your therapist friend may be right, maybe you don’t have the sort of seriously sad SAD that requires serious intervention, but maybe you have subsyndromal seasonal affective disorder, the milder kind (I’m willing to bet that I do, and we have plenty of company). Maybe you have low kisspeptin. Maybe you just don’t like the dark. You could do the light-box therapy anyway, no matter what your friend says, and just see if it works. You could take a lovely "get your groove back" beach vacation. You could make sure you get out of the office every day at lunch. Or you could just figure that having a low libido for three months a year is not the most horrible thing that could possibly happen, and hibernate until it’s over. You wouldn’t be the first mammal to just pull the covers over her head and wait for the solstice. Your next mate can wait.



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