by Dr. Robert Rosenberg, medical adviser to SoClean
If you live in the northern latitudes, take heart: Spring will be here in less than a month. Even so, it’s still very possible to be suffering from seasonal affective disorder—and its less-serious sibling, known as “the winter blues”—through February and March. If the cold and dark have you feeling depressed, fatigued, socially isolated, brain-fogged or lethargic, there are some easy steps you can take to lift the gloom.
The main culprit behind the winter blues is the lack of sunlight this time of year, caused by shorter days and cloudier skies, as well as our natural tendency to stay inside and out of the cold weather. Lack of sunlight causes less serotonin and vitamin D production in our bodies, lowering our energy levels and making us even less likely to get up and out into the scarce sunshine. Additionally, having to wake up in the dark can disrupt our circadian rhythms, causing sleep disruptions and further exacerbating the symptoms.
So how do you add more light to your life on a dark, cloudy day? Depending on the severity of your winter blues, try these ideas:
1. Take advantage of natural light. Whenever the sun is up, make an effort to get outside more. Take a walk, or have your lunch break in a park if it’s warm enough. Even on a cloudy day, this is much more beneficial than sitting in a cubicle. And when you do have to be inside, throw open the curtains or blinds and get as much natural light as you can. If it’s possible, it’s extremely beneficial to situate your workspace next to a window.
2. Wake up more like nature intended. Humans are designed to awaken when the sun comes up, but that’s not much help when it’s still pitch black outside when you need to get up for work. One inexpensive but effective tool I recommend is called a dawn light simulator. This is essentially an alarm clock that begins to brighten your room gradually about a half-hour before you’re scheduled to get up. Many of my patients who have trouble getting going in the morning find that these devices help immensely.
3. Bring in the big guns. For seasonal affective disorder, or more severe cases of the winter blues, I recommend treatment with a light box within an hour of waking up. These devices mimic the light from the sun and provide about 20 times more illumination than you would get from the lights in your house alone (10,000 lux versus about 300 to 500 lux). The usual treatment is 30 minutes sitting in front of the light box; you can be working at your desk or eating breakfast, but it’s important to get exposed to the light as soon as possible after awakening. These devices can resolve symptoms of seasonal depression within a few weeks.
Besides light therapy, there are a few other treatments and lifestyle factors that can help you shake off the gloom of winter:
4. Get regular exercise. I prescribe about 30 minutes of vigorous exercise, four or five times a week. It’s important not to exercise too close to bedtime, however, because the stress hormones it creates can interfere with a good night’s sleep. It is a great idea to get your exercise with a loved one or colleague, because regular socialization will also help to combat symptoms of the winter blues.
5. Establish a healthy routine. Anything that strengthens the circadian rhythm will be helpful for sleep, mood and energy levels. So I suggest that you try to eat on a regular schedule throughout the winter and also maintain a regular sleep-wake cycle, no matter how difficult it is. (Obviously, make sure your schedule has you getting enough sleep, around eight hours.)
6. Talk to a doctor or therapist. Seasonal depression affects everyone differently, and for some people it can get disruptive, isolating, incapacitating or even cause suicidal thoughts. If that’s the case, all the previous advice can help, but it will also be important to get assistance from a medical professional. They may prescribe antidepressants or cognitive behavioral therapy, both of which have been shown to be effective against seasonal affective disorder.
Continue reading our blog for six more ways to ensure you get a better night’s sleep in the New Year.