Shorter Days Can Impact Your Mood
Many people can sum up the winter season with one word: Blah! In colder climates, it’s common to wake up on winter mornings to an overcast sky that hides the sun all day. While some people can move ahead with their activities, the gloominess of the day can stop others in their tracks.
The lack of exposure to light during the winter season can easily affect one’s mood. About 10 million Americans are affected every year by a wintertime depression called “seasonal affective disorder (SAD),” according to Lina Begdache, a New York-based nutritional neuroscientist.
The seasonal disorder usually starts in late fall or early winter. For most people, the SAD signs and symptoms go away by the spring or summer months when there are more daylight hours. The mood disorder has many symptoms, with depression being the most common sign.
According to the Mayo Clinic, SAD symptoms may start out mild and become more severe as the season progresses. Besides depression, other SAD signs and symptoms may include:
• Feeling anxious
• Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
• Feelings of low self-esteem
• Low physical energy levels and feeling sluggish
• Having problems with sleeping too much
• Constant cravings for carbohydrates, overeating, and weight gain
• Having difficulty concentrating
• Having thoughts of not wanting to live
In an article for The Conversation website, Begdache writes that SAD can affect anyone, but people with a history of mood disorders are at a higher risk. Young adults and women of all ages are even more susceptible to the disorder.
So, what causes SAD? Begdache, who is also an associate professor of Health and Wellness Studies at Binghamton University, State University of New York, points to the body’s circadian rhythm, also called the body’s “biological clock.” This internal clock is regulated by light and darkness and follows a 24-hour cycle, just like a regular clock. The circadian rhythm controls metabolism, growth, hormone release, and our sleep-wake cycle.
The body’s internal clock gets a significant jolt in the fall when daylight savings time ends. The “fall back” by one hour means it becomes dark earlier and reduces the amount of light exposure most people receive in a 24-hour cycle. It’s possible, however, to readjust the circadian rhythm to the new light-dark schedule.
To do this, Begdache recommends exposing yourself to daylight as soon as possible after waking up. Also, maintain sleep, exercise, and eating routines that align with the routine prior to the time change. People will eventually transition into the new schedule, she said.
Along with the light-dark schedule, serotonin and melatonin play a role in SAD. Serotonin is a chemical the body produces that regulates mood, appetite, and circadian rhythm. Serotonin converts to melatonin when it gets dark. Melatonin is a hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle and sends signals to the brain that it’s time to go to sleep.
According to Begdache, the early release of melatonin can disrupt the sleep-wake cycle. For some people, this sleep disruption can cause moodiness, daytime sleepiness, and loss of appetite regulation, which can lead to unhealthy snacking. Begdache says that people with SAD often crave sweets and other foods rich in simple sugars because there is a close association between carbohydrate consumption, appetite regulation, and sleep.
Ways to Beat the Winter Blues
People with SAD can fight off the winter blues. The following are some tips that can prevent SAD or at least reduce its severity:
• Get as much natural daylight as possible. Go outside during the day, especially when the sun in shining. Most importantly, try to get at least one hour of natural light after you wake up in the morning when the circadian clock is most sensitive to light.
• Use a light therapy lamp or a light therapy box. Bright light therapy, also known as phototherapy, produces a soft light that mimics natural outdoor light.
• Eat a balanced diet of complex carbohydrates and healthy proteins to support steady serotonin and melatonin production.
• Exercise during the day to increase serotonin production and support circadian regulation. Regular physical activity can help boost your mood and reduce symptoms of SAD.
• Stay socially connected with people in person or online to improve your mood.
• Avoid stimulants like coffee, tea, or heavy meals close to bedtime.
• Reduce stress before going to bed by trying relaxation techniques, meditation, deep breathing, or yoga.
• Make sure to get enough sleep. Sleep can boost your mood and energy levels.
In some instances, people who continue to struggle with SAD might want to speak to a mental health professional who can determine the best course of treatment.
These and other steps may help brighten your life during the darkest time of the year.