Seasonal affective disorder is a condition that causes people to feel overly tired, emotionally drained, and even potentially depressed during the darker winter months. The reason for this is usually put down to a lack of sunlight. As the body isn’t getting the sunlight that it normally would in the morning, this can result in your natural body-clock falling out of sync. You’re now missing the ‘external zeitgeber’ (external cue) that the body uses to set its circadian rhythms and as such, your body wants to sleep longer when you’re forcing yourself out of bed.
Meanwhile, reduced activity, fresh air, and sunlight exposure follow due to the individual being forced indoors by dark, wet, cold, and windy weather! This in turn can cause lethargy, cabin fever, and a shift in hormones, all of which contribute to the symptoms associated with SAD.
While the term is still somewhat vague and the precise causes aren’t fully understood, it is generally agreed that a combination of these factors impact on people in different ways and cause them to feel generally ‘low’ during winter months. To overcome the problem, here are some things you can try.
1. Daylight Lamp
Essentially, a daylight lamp is a lamp that emits a light that is close to the wavelength that is produced by the sun. This is therefore able to essentially ‘trick’ the brain into thinking it’s witnessing a sunrise and that in turn triggers neurochemicals just the same way as the sun would.
Daylight lamps come in all shapes and sizes and you can get them for your desk, for lamps around your various rooms, and more.
2. Daylight Alarm
What’s even better is that these lamps are normally combined with an alarm clock. This means you can then set it to gradually get brighter in the morning and to thereby gently rouse you out of sleep just as a real-life sunrise would.
Now, instead of being ‘startled awake’ by a noisy alarm and flooding your body with stress, you’re instead being gently nudged into wakefulness by the sun – just as your body was designed to be.
Better yet, your brain will produce cortisol as the sun ‘rises’ which is the hormone that works counter to melatonin to signal that it’s time for you to wake up.
SAD is made significantly worse by the way that most of us wake ourselves in the mornings: with noisy alarm that startles us out of deep sleep into pitch dark. This is one of the reasons that a daylight lamp alarm can make a such difference.
Another solution is to wear a health-tracking smartwatch that can assess your sleep stage and nudge you awake with vibration only at the point where you are in lighter sleep. This will be less of a jarring shock to the system and can help you to start your day feeling better.
4. Get More Fresh Air
While you might be mentally tired at the end of the day, if you aren’t also physically tired then it can be harder to doze off – which contributes to low energy the next day. Many of us spend all day working in an office, then come home only to sit in front of a television. We’re constantly mentally stimulated while being cooped up in small, stuffy environments – it’s hardly any wonder we often struggle to sleep.
Instead, then, try spending some more time outside and exercising so that when you come to hit the hay your body will instantly melt into the bed around you and your brain will be completely ready to switch off. This way you’ll also increase your sun exposure, your fresh air, and more – all of which will combat the effects of SAD.
5. Have a Quiet Hour
If you find that your mind is racing after you’ve tucked yourself in, then it may be that you’re simply too active and excitable when you should be sleeping. To try and combat this, give yourself 30 minutes to an hour to just relax and unwind before bed.
Read a book to slow down your thoughts, listen to some quiet music, and avoid anything like action films or phone calls. Likewise, try to avoid eating as this will also make it harder to sleep.
Better sleep means you wake feeling more refreshed!
5. Avoid Screens
Just as you want to get natural, bright, cortisol producing light first thing in the morning, you also want to avoid bright lights at night that will only further confuse your body clock and get you out of sorts.
One of the worst culprits for this are screens on our phones, TVs, and computers. Try avoiding these for an hour or so before bed or at least use a redshift app or program to alter the wavelength.
6 Make Your Room Perfect
Of course, light and noise in your room can also make your sleep more disturbed. Even a light as seemingly small as the LED on an alarm can make a big difference and cause you to sleep more lightly. Make sure that every last light source is accounted for, and try to improve the sound insulation too if you’re near a road/another source of the noise.
7. Cut Your Hair Shorter
Okay, so this one is a little more experimental but it’s worth a shot!
How does light help us to wake up? One theory is that it stimulates parts of the brain by entering through the skull. This is why birds always wake up at the crack of dawn: they have very thin skulls.
So in theory, cutting your hair shorter might make you more sensitive to even small amounts of light coming in through the window and help you keep your body regulated.
8. Change Your Hours
To get better sleep, it is important to try and sleep at more regular times. This way, your body will adapt and you’ll begin feeling tired at the end of the day and more awake in the morning.
But as well as being consistent, it’s also a good idea to listen to your body. Some people are naturally more inclined to wake later and others prefer earlier starts. If you feel constantly tired, try shifting your sleep and wake times back or forward an hour and see if that helps! Consider asking your employers about flexi-time too.
9. Use Vitamin D
One of the ways that sunlight helps us to feel more awake and energetic is by stimulating the release of vitamin D. Vitamin D is actually not a vitamin in the conventional sense but is better described as a prohormone that regulates the release of other hormones in our system. Because sunlight is what stimulates our body to produce vitamin D, it is necessary in order to keep everything ticking over normally.
This contributes to our sleep-wake cycle, so try taking a vitamin D supplement first thing in the morning when you are missing that sunlight exposure.
As mentioned, getting more exercise will help you to tire yourself out during the day more so that you sleep more heavily when you do go to bed.
At the same time though, exercise also produces endorphins which will help to boost your mood and counteract any depressive effects that might come from the lack of sunlight.