It is the end of January and the winter blues are starting to set in. The cold feels colder. You are yearning for warmer days and sunshine. All you want to do is crawl up in bed and hibernate.
You may have noticed how you are feeling less energetic, sleepier, and really unmotivated. For some of you the effects of the winter blues can be especially rough. Symptoms can manifest themselves as full on depression.
Seasonal Affective Disorder
There has not been a full on concrete answer to why some people experience SAD when the seasons change. I am going to dive into what I believe and how you can help alleviate or manage the symptoms and keep your sleep on track.
I am sure most of you know what SAD is, but here is a quick recap. When the seasons change and the days get shorter and the intensity of the sun decreases certain individuals will experience symptoms like increased sleep coupled with delayed sleep onset, less motivation, carb cravings, lethargic during the day, and in severe cases depression.
Have you ever heard the phrase that people are just plants with emotions? It kind of is true. Light is a nutrient for us. The suns rays and spectrums relay information to different cells in our body to turn on or off processes.
Think back to the summer. It is warmer, the sun is more intense, and the days are longer. Your mood is elevated, you have more energy, you want to be outside moving, you do spend more time outside, and you just feel better. Now look at the flip side during the winter. It is cold, the days are shorter, the sun is not very intense, the sun doesn’t produce much UVB for vitamin D production.
A large majority of people hole themselves inside their house for 3 months or more. This creates a snowball effect that perpetuates SAD and other health problems. Since they are inside more they are exposed to stale, polluted indoor air (indoor air can be 10x the pollution level as outdoor air).
More bluelight exposure
They are exposed to more blue light that is not balanced with red light from their LED lights and electronic screens. The sun does produce a large amount of blue light in its spectrum, but it is balanced with equal part red light. With less light each day, it is normal to start to develop a reverse photoperiod. What I mean by this is, your body exposure to light is opposite of what your circadian rhythm wants. This can lead having a harder time falling asleep and then feeling tired for the first part of the day. How does this happen? In the morning you wake up when it is still dark out and head to work. The lighting indoors is very weak compared to the sun even on cloudy winter days. You then spend all day indoors and then head home. Once home, since it is dark out you flip on all the lights in the house and stare at the TV blasting blue light. What this tells your eyes and brain is that it is daytime. Let’s stay up and be alert instead of what normally would be happening of winding down as the sun goes down.
Serotonin and Melatonin Connection
Finally, serotonin is your “happy” hormone. This is why doctors are prescribing SSRI medications to help boost your serotonin levels. While this can help in the right context, an altering of your habits and environment to rebalance your body is going to help more in the long run.
In the morning with sunlight hitting your eyes your serotonin is produced. In the winter for many the sun is not up when you head to work or you just don’t want to go outside when it is cold. You miss out on this opportunity to naturally boost your serotonin. This then has a carryover effect to your sleep. If you remember sleep is brought on by the release of melatonin. Melatonin is made from serotonin. How can your body made enough melatonin when there is not enough of the base material? When this happens people start having delayed sleep onset and wake up in the morning with their brain still producing melatonin. Mornings where you have melatonin still moving through your body makes for hitting the snooze multiple times, falling back asleep, or being extremely groggy.
Circadian rhythm out of sync
Once you add up all of these factors and environmental cues, the end result can be a disrupted circadian rhythm (CR). Your CR controls when your hormones are released, when repairs happen in your body, and when neurotransmitters are increased and decreased. Imagine now if the timing of all this was messed up and how you would feel? You would feel all out of whack. Like your melatonin being released in the morning instead of at night which makes you sleepy during the day and wide awake at night.
How to improve SAD
Knowing what you know now about how the sun, here are some suggestions on how to help offset the winter blues. Most of these are simple to do. A few of them require purchasing equipment, but it is less than $300. Otherwise, the rest just require you to be consistent and mindful of your routine.
Light therapy involves exposing your eyes and skin to a bright light of 10,000lux output in the morning. What this is doing is mimicking the morning sun. By doing this, you are sending the signal from your eyes to your brain to turn off your melatonin, reset your circadian rhythm for the day, and boost up your cortisol.
I have not been impressed with many of the products out there. There are 2 key criteria you need for this to work. Brightness level and lux reading at distance. The second component is critical. For most products they meet the first 10,000lux reading, but it is only at 6 inches or less. Nobody wants to spend 20 minutes with their face pressed up against a light. This is why the only light box I recommend is made by Alaskan Northern Lights. Their lights are 10,000lux at 25inches. This means you can wake up, flip on the light and eat breakfast or read a book while getting your light level filled. It is important to not do this in the evening. This will keep you up at night and throw off your melatonin production.
Vitamin D Lamp
The next contraption you can do at home is a vitamin D lamp. Low vitamin D levels are pretty common since people live indoors and slather sunscreen on all the time. Low vitamin D levels are linked to numerous health ailments and poor sleep.
You can make a cheap wide band UVB lamp by purchasing a reptile UVB bulb and a clamp on light. The idea then is you sit about 12 inches away from the bulb and shine it on large body areas like chest, abdomen, and back. I personally do this for about 5 min on each body section. You do not want to over due it because you will get a burn. Small amounts is what you want. You can do this until the skin gets a light pink color and do it every 2 days. I like this over a vitamin D pill because your body is actually making it not some synthetic molecule made in a lab. Other options would be eating lots of high fat fish. This is partly why Icelanders and Nordic people can handle winter.
Even though it is cold outside and the sun is at its weakest, getting outdoors can be a great benefit yet. Who wants to be trapped indoors all the time? The fresh air, sounds of nature, bright light (remember it is still brighter outside on a cloudy day, than it is inside), and movement all help to boost your mood, set your circadian rhythm, and wake you up.
My name is Jason Piper and I am a certified sleep coach from Detroit,MI. I help people and businesses to rebuild their sleep for more energy, concentration, and creativity. Join my Sleep Quest to improve your sleep tonight.