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Seasonal affective disorder: Self-care tips to fight the winter blues

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Some people might have looked forward to the extra hour of sleep after Daylight Saving Time ended recently, but for millions of people, the shorter days and longer nights are another reminder about the coming of winter (blues).

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that occurs in late fall and winter that has to do with the lack of sunlight.

Having shorter days and longer nights during fall and winter can disrupt a 24-hour clock inside our bodies called the circadian rhythm. This clock regulates multiple bodily processes and is influenced by the day-night cycle, said circadian rhythm expert Joseph Takahashi, professor and chair of the neuroscience department at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, via email. Disrupted circadian responses may affect brain regions involved in mood, along with causing fatigue and low energy from lack of sleep.

Taking care of your health is key to dealing with seasonal affective disorder. Here’s what experts say you can do to manage seasonal affective disorder. Remember to talk to your medical provider before starting any new treatments.

Light therapy is the go-to treatment for seasonal affective disorder. It involves exposing yourself to a light box with at least 10,000 lux for at least 30 minutes. (Lux is a unit of measurement for light level intensity.)

“A bright sunny day is 50,000 to 100,000 lux,” said Dr. Jason Tucciarone, an instructor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine. While you can purchase a light box of lower intensity, you will have to spend more time sitting in front of it.

There are two ways a light box helps with seasonal affective disorder. First, mimicking outdoor light corrects the internal clock thrown out of sync from shorter days in winter. Another way is by increasing levels of serotonin, a brain chemical involved in balancing mood.

You can use the light box at any time, but morning use can give you more energy for the rest of the day. “Look away from it and do something where you’re sitting in front of the light, whether it’s eating breakfast, reading the news or anything that will keep you busy for 30 minutes,” Tucciarone said. Make sure to stay 2 to 3 feet away from it and do not look directly into the box because 10,000 lux can hurt your eyes.

These type of alarm clocks imitate natural sunlight. When it’s time to wake up, the light gradually increases in intensity.

Some research suggests dawn simulators may be just as effective in reducing depressive symptoms. They may be a good addition to your light box therapy, Tucciarone said, as you can get exposed to light the moment you wake up without straining your eyes.

Thomas Kilkenny, a sleep specialist at Northwell Health in New York, emphasized the importance of getting enough sleep. The lack of sunlight from shorter winter days can disrupt our internal clocks that tell us when it’s time to be awake and when it’s time to wind down. The disrupted sleep schedule can cause insomnia and excessive daytime sleepiness.

Get ready for bed an hour before you plan to go, Kilkenny recommended. Dim the lights, use the bathroom and avoid arguments or emotional situations where you’re going to get yourself worked up. Additionally, avoid using electronics as you start to wind down as they can make it harder to fall asleep.

“Phones and computers have bright light which can trick your mind into thinking it’s daylight,” Tucciarone said.

Finally, he advised having a stable sleep schedule, which entails going to bed around the same time every night and waking up the same time every morning.

Exercise works as a mood booster as it releases chemicals such as serotonin and endorphins to make you feel good and cope better with stress. Even a low-impact activity such as a 10-to-15 minute brisk walk can improve depressive symptoms.

Going outside for a small walk can be even more beneficial, Kilkenny said, since you are simultaneously exposing yourself to bright light.

If you are going to exercise, Kilkenny recommended doing it in the morning rather than at night. “Working out a couple of hours before bed will actually raise your body temperature, which is a bad idea,” he said.

Feeling an urge to hibernate for the winter? Social isolation is common among people with seasonal affective disorder, and isolating may contribute to depressive symptoms. Recently, the US surgeon general reported that being socially disconnected was as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

“Socialization is really important in treating disorders in general,” Tucciarone said. “Isolating is not good for mood.” You may not feel up to a party or a dinner date, but even small amounts of companionship can make a difference. One suggestion from Tucciarone is having a buddy with you when taking outdoor walks.

Cognitive behavioral therapy has people with seasonal affective disorder work to develop an awareness on what they’re experiencing, identify negative thoughts and come up with strategies to replace the thoughts with more positive ones, said Lucian Manu, a psychiatrist at Stony Brook Medicine in New York.

Cognitive behavioral therapy may be more effective than light therapy at preventing remissions. One study found that six weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy helped reduce depressive symptoms and reduced the chances of developing seasonal affective disorder the following winter.

Antidepressants are another option that Manu recommended for people with severe seasonal affective disorder. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, for example, work to boost serotonin levels, which can help boost mood. A popular prescription is bupropion, which Manu said helps in managing increasing sleep (along with appetite and weight) for people with seasonal affective disorder.

Jocelyn Solis-Moreira is a New York-based freelance health and science journalist.

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