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  • Writer's pictureDena Lampert

Let the Sunshine in: How to Fight Seasonal Affective Disorder with Sunlight

We’ve all experienced the winter blues. Sometimes the cold weather and the grey sky just gets to you. Little winter pleasures like enjoying some hot chocolate while watching a movie snuggled up in a blanket are usually enough to give you the warm fuzzies and make up for the gloomy weather outside.

But what if they’re not? Some people go through a really tough time during winter. They find it hard to get out of bed and struggle to make it through the day.

Often people are suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder without even realizing.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (ironically abbreviated as SAD) is more than the winter blues. It’s a form of Depression that occurs during a certain season of the year. Although it usually manifests during winter, some people experience SAD during the summer as well.

In today’s post we’re going to discuss the symptoms and causes of winter Seasonal Affective Disorder and we’ll also suggest ways to overcome SAD using a free-for-all, natural resource: the sun!

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Since SAD is a depressive disorder, it shares the following symptoms with Major Depressive Disorder:

  • Low mood, feelings of despair

  • Lack of interest and motivation

  • Low self-esteem

  • Irritability, stress

  • Difficulty to concentrate

There also symptoms particular to SAD. As we explain below, most of these symptoms are the result of decreased levels of sunlight:

  • Oversleeping, difficulty getting out of bed

  • Feeling lethargic or tired throughout the day

  • Overeating and food cravings, especially for food rich in carbohydrates

SAD symptoms start in the fall and continue all through the winter. They might be mild at first and go unnoticed, but they often worsen as the season progresses.

What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Although the exact cause of SAD remains unclear, the lack of sufficient sunlight is certainly a determining factor, as it disrupts our circadian rhythm and hormone production. Here’s how it works.

First of all, what is a Circadian rhythm? A Circadian rhythm is nothing more than our biological clock that regulates our sleep/wake cycle. It usually follows a 24-hour cycle that aligns with the cycle of the sun and is heavily dependent on light. Simply put, the morning light tells our brain that it’s time for our body to wake up and darkness says that it’s time to sleep.

In the winter, the nights are longer and the amount of sunlight is typically less than in the summer. When the amount of light we get is reduced, our melatonin levels are higher. Melatonin is the hormone that prepares our body for sleep and helps us get a good night’s rest. But it’s also responsible for this feeling of drowsiness. Have you noticed how you find it hard to keep your eyes open past 10 PM in the winter? That’s the melatonin that starts to kick in as soon as the sun sets.

At the same time, insufficient light results in lower Serotonin levels in our body. Serotonin, the so-called happy hormone, is closely linked with depression. Although it’s not yet certain whether depression is responsible for low serotonin levels or the other way around.

As for those cravings for chocolate and other junk foods, it’s probably your body seeking out Serotonin. Simple carbohydrates, found in pasta, sweets, etc. create a chemical reaction in our brain that leads to Serotonin production and increased mood. Your brain remembers that and asks for more of the same when you’re not feeling your best.

How to Use Sunlight to Overcome Seasonal Affective Disorder

Now that you know that the lack of sunlight is partly the culprit behind SAD, why not try to make the most of the lovely sunshine whenever you can?

Get some sunlight in the morning. For a person suffering from SAD, exposure to the sun is beneficial at any time of the day. But it’s even more beneficial in the morning because you need the light cues to signal your brain that it’s time to get moving. In fact, the earlier you get your daily dosage of sunlight the better. Just 30-45 minutes will suffice. So set your alarm clock 30 minutes earlier, if you must, to make room for your new morning ritual. You can go for a morning walk, or just sit outside to read or have breakfast. Even if you can’t leave home, at least pull back the blinds to let natural light flow into your home.

Cutting down on sleep might sound counterintuitive but what you’ll actually be doing is giving yourself a refreshing energy and mood boost that will help you kickstart your day. Plus, the sun is safer in the morning, and the UV is less intense.

Exercise outside. Remember that you’re trying to fight a type of depression. Therefore, your primary concern is to stay active. So why not kill two birds with one stone and exercise while the sun is still shining? The exercise will release endorphins and the sunlight will boost your Serotonin levels, both of which will instantly improve your mood. Start an outdoors sport that you find interesting, like cycling or tennis. If you’re lucky enough to have a park or another open space near your home where you can exercise regularly, all the better.

Spend more time outdoors with every chance you get. That’s easier said than done, of course, when your schedule is packed, but you don’t need to go to great lengths or make major lifestyle changes to spend a bigger part of your day outside. A little change of habits is all it takes.

Like having your breakfast outside. You can also try walking to work. If that’s not an option, park your car a few blocks away, or get off the subway one stop before. Take a walk during your lunch break. Besides, somewhere around 1 to 3 o’clock, you’re likely to feel a bit sleepy. It’s perfectly normal – your circadian rhythm slows down after noon, so why not get a little sun boost and return to work with fresh energy?

These simple tips require little effort but can make a big difference in your daily life. If lack of motivation is an issue for you, adding some accountability will help. Nothing much, just keep a journal to write down when you do or don’t go for that morning walk or exercise outside, and how you feel afterwards. Seeing the positive results written down will keep you motivated and committed.

But if you feel like your “winter blues” are getting worse, don’t hesitate to get in touch. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a mood disorder and it should be treated as such.


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