It’s that time of year again.
In much of the northern hemisphere, temperatures are dropping rapidly, snow is beginning to cover the grounds, salt is blanketing the roads, and heating units are kicking into high-gear. Along with all of that, the days are getting shorter and the skies grayer.
Ok, I’m not much of a cold weather fan.
However, my warm-weather bias aside, this time of year presents a challenge to many that can be far more burdensome than cold weather or salt getting tracked into your house, car, or any other number of places.
Yes, while the bone-chilling temperatures, snow, and ice can most definitely be unwelcome, it is the lack of exposure to natural light due to shorter days, more cloud cover, and decreased intensity of sunlight that can commonly trigger a type of depression known as seasonal affective disorder.
Now, while Seasonal Affective Disorder may be more common in some areas than others, we are going to cover some great tips that will help improve your sleep, energy levels, and other factors regardless of where you live, so don’t check out just yet.
That said, the American Psychiatric Association estimates that Seasonal Affective Disorder affects over 10 million Americans each year, with another 10 to 20% of the population suffering from mild SAD, as well as millions more across the globe.
Seasonal affective disorder causes changes to certain hormone levels within our body, typically in response to a change in our light environment and natural day/night cycle.
In addition to general depression, this condition can also decrease sleep, energy, concentration and productivity, and increase appetite and weight.
So, in order to improve both your physical and psychological health this winter, or simply improve sleep and energy, in general, let’s take a look at a few habits you can implement to combat Season Affective Disorder.
1 Hour of Exposure
The first thing you can do is to try to get at least 1 hour of natural light every day.
Our light environment, or exposure to natural light, has a tremendous effect on our circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms effect numerous physical and psychological functions within our body. Everything from when we go to the bathroom, to when we are most coordinated, to when we sleep, and more. The lack of exposure to natural light on a regular basis can cause these circadian rhythms to become misaligned, which puts you at a far higher risk of suffering from seasonal affective disorder and other conditions.
(If you would like to learn more about how circadian rhythms effect your body, you can read my article, Getting in Rhythm)
Getting one hour of natural light on a daily basis will help anchor your circadian rhythms, promoting more normal hormone levels, better sleep, more energy, and more.
If possible, try to get exposure during the middle of the day. Try going for a walk in the middle of the day, eat lunch outside if the weather permits, or even eat your lunch by a window. If you find this too difficult or circumstances don’t allow for it, try implementing an hour of phototherapy, or light therapy. These lights mimic that of natural outdoor light, providing the same anchoring effect to your circadian rhythms and can conveniently be done at home or at the office, during work or leisure time.
Don’t Send Your Brain the Wrong Signals
Our second piece of advice is to minimize your exposure to blue light after sunset.
Blue light is simply high-energy, short wavelength light, such as that emitted from the sun or your phototherapy devices.
While exposure to this light is excellent during the daytime, most of us are exposing ourselves to the same blue-light into the late of hours of the night through our use of electronic devices, such as computers, smart phones, tablets, and TVs that emit the same intensity of light.
While many consider these activities to be “relaxing,” exposing yourself to this type of light is quite stimulating to the brain and can have some adverse effects. Exposure to blue light at night, essentially sends the signal to the brain that it’s daytime. This can delay or suppress the release of a hormone called melatonin. As a result, it can take longer to get to sleep and you will spend less time in that deep, restorative sleep. Furthermore, chronic suppression of melatonin can lead to chronic sleep deprivation, which is heavily linked to obesity and diabetes, as well as, of course, Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Our advice for you is to turn off all electronic devices 30 to, preferably, 60 minutes prior to bed. This will allow your mind and body to shut down and prepare for a great night of sleep.
Now, since we don’t live in a perfect world, if you need to work or use your computer, download the application, F.lux. This app adjusts the backlight on your computer to mimic the tone of outdoor light throughout the day, emitting bright blue light during the day, and a warm, incandescent orange light in the evening and after dark.
Get Nutrition & Exercise Dialed-in
In addition to incorporating these two tips of increasing exposure to natural light during the day and minimizing exposure to that same blue-light at night, exercising regularly and working to develop good dietary habits will greatly help you combat the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder, while also improving sleep quality and energy.
Seek Professional Help
Finally, even though these habits will go a long way to helping you combat and/or avoid experiencing the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, if do experience, or are currently experiencing signs of severe depression we highly recommend you seek the help of a mental health professional.
So, although millions of people around the world are fighting an on-going battle with diagnosed Seasonal Affective Disorder, and millions more who go undiagnosed struggle with varying degrees of symptoms, there is still hope that this can truly be the most wonderful time of the year. By following these simple guidelines, you and your loved ones, who may be suffering from some degree of Seasonal Affective Disorder, can experience improved mood, energy levels, concentration, and productivity, while also getting greater enjoyment out the holidays and the entire winter season.