Do you feel like a hibernating bear by this time of year??
Well here it is, almost winter again with our days getting dark around 4:30pm (before most of us even leave work). Sunlight is extremely important for setting our daily rhythms such as sleep, eating, productivity, and energy – by suppressing the neurotransmitter/hormone melatonin (a chemical that causes sleepiness). Melatonin is secreted in the brain by the pineal gland. Melatonin levels increase with darkness and decrease in the morning with sunlight. For that reason, every year at this time I find myself tired all the time and sleeping a lot. Not only that, but I feel like I have less motivation to actually go out and be social. My office lacks windows so I don’t even get to absorb what little daylight there is during work hours. So, I feel like that big guy in the picture, a hibernating bear 🙂
I’ve never been officially diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder (SAD – how appropriate), but I have all the symptoms. Symptoms of SAD include hypersomnia (excessive sleeping), daytime sleepiness, increased negative mood in fall and winter months, lack of energy, and 80% of cases are in women during childbearing years.
There are a few options available for improvement of SAD symptoms, but none of them were shown to completely abolish the negative impacts. The first is light therapy by using a light box although some prefer tanning (which I do not recommend!) even though reports of this technique has conflicting results. The time of day the person is exposed to bright light seems to have significant impact. It is helpful to try to get outside a few times a day to take a walk just for some natural sunlight exposure (probably the most effective therapy in SAD treatment). A second option is exercise (in my opinion probably the second most helpful therapy) – multiple studies have shown the importance of exercise for improved mood and energy. The third option is anti-depressant medications such as monoamine oxidase inhibitors, norepinephrine/dopamine reuptake inhibitors and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. However, finding the right medication and dose could take weeks to months (it could be spring by that time!). I’ve also written about food and mood before, so eating more healthy foods during the winter months could lower negative impacts of SAD – this includes reducing the amount of sugary starchy carb loaded food (put down that Christmas cookie!) so that insulin levels don’t spike and drop quickly. Lastly, from personal experience I have found that just getting out and socializing (even when you don’t feel like it) increases mood significantly – if you can incorporate it with activity it is even better (think about joining a sports league with some friends).
If you can combine all of the above suggested treatments I think that is the best option for minimizing SAD symptoms, increasing mood, and increasing energy levels. I would love to hear some comments from others about their methods for treating SAD.