This is a guest post by Sarah Cummings of SleepAdvisor.org
Did you know that there are millions of people who experience some level of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)? It’s not just a bad mood that comes on every winter. SAD is real, but you might be able to fight it - and gain better sleep while you’re at it!
What is SAD?
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression. Like the name says, it’s related to the days getting shorter and the nights getting longer with the changing of the seasons. There are even different versions for different seasons.
Many people start feeling down when it gets dark and cold, but SAD is long-lasting and consistent. You might have SAD if you see a pattern in when you get symptoms like depression, low energy, problems sleeping, difficulty concentrating, and weight changes. It’s important to talk to your doctor if you have any of these issues that last for a long period of time.
Why is SAD happening to me?
You may or may not know, but sunlight is a nutrient that benefits our bodies. When we don’t receive enough of it, it can affect how we feel. Our exposure to sunlight facilitates an increase in feel-good chemicals released into the brain and body.
Then winter comes around. Many people endure those short, dreary days without noticing much more than a little grumpiness. But we aren’t getting the same chemicals, and for some people this can be a problem. Even if you don’t have SAD, the grey weather could be causing other problems.
Our bodies don’t suppress the release of melatonin (the sleep hormone) as efficiently in the winter as in the summer months. Why suppress melatonin? If you don’t suppress it properly and at the right times, you can suffer from feelings of sluggishness and mental haziness – and just generally have trouble getting out of bed.
Adding to that, our lives are filled with artificial light during the day, but also at night when we should be transitioning into rest mode. More light at night keeps you up, and you may have already heard that the blue light that comes from your mobile device can interrupt your natural rhythm. Lack of quality sleep has a negative impact on overall health, and its symptoms can be similar to SAD.
What about other lights? Studies have shown that exposure to artificial light instead of full-spectrum sunlight can also cause problems. Effects include weight gain, problems sleeping, migraines, and, yes, SAD.
How can I avoid SAD?
So say you think you might be affected by the weather, what should you do? Besides seeing your doctor, here are a few tips!
- Get enough sleep – We’ve already talked about the link between not getting enough quality sleep and feeling down. Make sure you’re getting your 8 hours a day, and do your best to make it restful sleep. So that means eliminating distractions wherever possible, and having the right support to keep your body comfortable.
- Get some sun - As you may have realized, going out in the sun is the best way to get those good chemicals going to get your body back on track. Ideally, you should get a minimum of about 30 minutes of sunlight each day, or at least every 48 hours. We know it’s hard to get sunlight in the winter, so you can use a SAD light instead. It emits the same light spectrum as sunlight, so put it about five to ten feet away in your peripheral vision and make sure to soak it up for the same amount of time, if not more.
It's most important to expose your face to the light from a SAD lamp.
- Enjoy some exercise - Exercise is always important for your overall health and sleep quality, Sleep Advisor experts state, and it’s even more important if you’re impacted by SAD. Experts recommend 30 minutes a day of activity. You might notice this is the same amount of time as the recommended dose of sunlight, so if you can combine the two, even better! You don’t need to exhaust yourself every day, just a brisk walk can be plenty.
- Take a vitamin D supplement - A vitamin D deficiency has been proven to be a link to depression, but it can also help avoid other serious health issues, such as some forms of cancer, asthma in children, and cardiovascular disease. If you’re not getting enough vitamin D from sunlight, fish, or dairy, take a vitamin D supplement. Some people need a stronger or weaker dose, so it’s worth speaking to your doctor about what’s right for you.
- Consume the right amount of essential fatty acids – Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to be powerful protection against depression. You can find them in foods such as fish, vegetable oil, nuts, seeds and many plant-based sources. Research has established that, as well as helping with SAD, these essential fatty acids can also aid in reducing inflammation, lowering blood triglycerides, and reducing the risk of dementia.
- Change your diet – Some foods are better for you than others, and making your body feel good by eating right can improve your mood. Eat foods rich in antioxidants like beta-carotene (apricots, carrots, spinach), vitamin C (blueberries, broccoli, potatoes), and vitamin E (nuts and seeds, margarine, wheat germ). Not any format will do, though – processed foods and sugary treats don’t retain nutritional value. Don’t forget the protein – keep protein in your diet to clear your mind and boost your energy. Good sources include beans, poultry, soy, fish, milk, and yogurt.
- Try some meditation - Meditation and other methods of deep relaxation have become more popular than ever, and with good reason. Regular meditation can train the brain to focus on things other than stress and negativity. This means it’s easier to deal with those thoughts before they spiral deeper into depression. Meditation can also change areas of the brain related to depression so that they don’t send out cortisol in response to a danger that’s only in your mind, keeping your body from getting worked up. The goal is not to block out negative thoughts, but to accept them and understand that they don’t have to be something that controls you. You can use whatever type of meditation works best for you; it could be yoga, mindfulness, breathing awareness, or one of the many others.
Again, depression is serious, and these methods are just ways that can help. There’s no substitute for getting proper treatment – you’ll feel better and maybe not hate winter so much!