Despite holiday music blaring, “’tis the season to be jolly,” many suffer from seasonal depression or seasonal affective disorder (SAD). The condition may increase apathy, mood swings, sluggishness, and/or feelings of anxiety. It is often due to a combination of less daytime light and colder weather.
Camelia Ades, an integrative medical practitioner for Holistic Health Seattle, attributes the various symptoms of SAD to low light’s effects on emotional regulation.
“It’s the lower light intensity and fewer hours of natural light that’s impacting us, specifically the hypothalamus in the brain,” said Ades.
Dr. David Avery, a psychiatrist and professor emeritus from the University of Washington, concurs with Ades’s observation. Avery has studied and published research on the effects of SAD and explained why some might experience a mood shift as the days grow darker.
“When the photoperiod, the time from sunrise to sunset gets shorter, the circadian rhythm tends to drift clockwise and individuals have a hard time waking up in the morning,” said Avery.
Avery suggested that regulating sleep patterns may help alleviate symptoms of SAD.
“During fall or winter, we’re waking up in the dark. Humans were not built to wake up in the dark,” Avery said. “When we are forcing ourselves to wake up before the sun, in effect, we are trying to wake up in the middle of our biological night.”
In Dallas, sunrise will occur around 7:10 a.m. at the beginning of December. However, the sun will come up by early January at 7:30 a.m. For those who work at 8 a.m., this may mean waking up a full hour before the sun rises.
At the same time, many do not get enough quality sleep during the winter. Distracted by the blue light of phones, many stay up into the night and lose touch with winter circadian rhythms.
“Our screens, computers and TVs, contain a lot of blue LEDs. It turns out that it’s that blue wavelength that syncs our circadian rhythm,” Avery said. “Often our eyes and brains get confused into thinking the sun is still up … people become sleep deprived.”
Ades and Avery suggest spending at least 10 to 30 minutes in the sunlight and turning lights on around the house to lessen the effects of SAD, especially for those who must wake up in the early morning hours.
Beyond proper lighting and quality sleep, here are additional tips for overcoming SAD:
- Exercise (especially outdoors)
- Eat healthier
- Avoid excessive caffeine in place of proper sleep
- Limit evening screen time
- Connect with friends and family
- Take vitamin D supplements
- Limit alcohol intake
Although SAD will eventually lessen in the warmer months, some may fall into a deep winter depression that carries on into the spring and can lead to an increased risk of suicide when compared to the general population. Therefore, seeking care from a medical professional is helpful if one cannot control symptoms.