A surprisingly simple way to counter the blues of winter

With days now rapidly getting shorter and nights getting correspondingly longer, our biological clocks must adapt to a different seasonal rhythm from the long days of summer.  Many of us adapt to this seasonal change with no problem at all; but for some of us the short days of fall and winter can lead to a seasonal form of depression known as SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder.  Fortunately, we all have available a surprisingly simple and free solution to help counter the effect of short days and long nights:  light, and especially in the form of natural sunlight.

SAD was first recognized in the early 1980s, and it affects more those living in higher latitudes, where days can be significantly shorter than in lower latitudes.  SAD has many symptoms, but typically involves a feeling of lethargy, excessive sleeping, and overeating, especially of carbohydrate-rich foods.  The neurotransmitter serotonin seems to play a role in the craving of carbs.  Melatonin, a sleep hormone naturally produced in the brain’s pineal gland, also is involved.  The pineal gland produces melatonin when it starts getting dark, and reduces production with exposure to light.

The simple solution that behavioral researchers have found for SAD is exposure to light.  The best form of light to treat SAD is natural sunlight, because of it’s brightness and full electromagnetic spectrum, but any bright light will help.  Some experts say exposure to sunlight first thing in the morning is ideal to treat SAD, others say the time of day doesn’t matter.

If for any reason getting out into the sun isn’t possible — as is the case for a few weeks of the year in Alaska — specially designed full-spectrum light therapy boxes are available to treat SAD.  But for most of us such devices are probably not necessary.

If you begin to feel the seasonal winter blues coming, try getting outside for an hour or more each day.  Walking, exercising, yard work, whatever you can do outside to move around in the sun will have a beneficial effect.  If you do it first thing in the morning, you also help to resynchronize your natural biological clock for a new day, which helps produce better sleep.  But getting out and about anytime in the sunshine is better than no time at all.

If you are having trouble sleeping during the long winter nights, it’s especially important to maintain a regular sleep schedule.  The Sleep Training System, an online downloadable program based on cognitive-behavioral therapy, will help you determine your ideal sleep timing, and how to create an optimal environment for robust sleep.

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2 Comments on “A surprisingly simple way to counter the blues of winter”

  1. […] is the surprisingly simple cue that helps resynchronize your biological clock for a new day.  The affect of light on your mind and body’s inherent sleep system is subtle, but […]

  2. […] during the shorter days of fall and winter, you also could be susceptible to a condition known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.  But that’s a diagnosis you’d want a healthcare professional to […]

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