Sleeping well is critically important to our overall physical and mental health and wellbeing. It helps to balance our moods and emotions and makes us more resilient. When we have one bad night we immediately spot the effects – irritability, lack of patience and concentration. Long term sleep deprivation can impact your mental and physical health. Seasonal Affective Disorder could be contributing to your lack of sleep or low mood - so in this article, we’ll explore:
- What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
- What are the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?
- What causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
- How you can treat Seasonal Affective Disorder
- How to sleep better with Seasonal Affective Disorder
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
According to the NHS, Seasonal Affective Disorder (also known as SAD or Seasonal Depression) is a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern. It is sometimes known as ‘winter depression’ because the symptoms are usually more apparent and more severe during the winter months. It can affect all aspects of your life.
SAD shouldn’t be confused with the ‘winter blues’ though. It is common for people to want to ‘hibernate’ and often report lethargy and low mood during the cold, dark months. However, the winter blues do not consistently impact your mood and your daily routines.
Seasonal Affective Disorder can present itself in a variety of ways, including:
- Consistently feeling depressed
- Feeling drained
- Changes to your sleep pattern
- Changes in appetite
The NHS suggests contacting your GP if you think you may be suffering from SAD and need help to manage the symptoms you’re presenting.
How do dark winter nights increase symptoms of SAD?
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder are increased in winter due to fewer hours of daylight during the shorter autumn and winter days. Here’s why:
- Low light and darkness increase the production of melatonin. This is the hormone produced by the pineal gland in your brain that makes you sleepy.
- This makes us more inclined to sleep for longer periods during winter and why it makes it harder to get out of bed in the morning.
- This then causes a decrease in serotonin, the hormone which regulates your mood, and lowers Vitamin D levels.
This change in hormones can disrupt your internal body clock. This is also known as the circadian rhythm, which plays a vital role in maintaining your sleep pattern and mood.
How to get a good night's sleep with SAD
Where possible, embrace a healthy sleep lifestyle. Following good sleep hygiene (sleep habits) helps to strengthen the body’s internal clock and also the ability to sleep. Sleep deprivation is a factor in mood changes. When we sleep well, we naturally feel better about ourselves.
To sleep better during darker nights, accept that you will feel sleepier during the winter months and allow your body, where practical, to dictate your sleeping patterns – don’t try to stay up later if you feel sleepy!
How to decrease the symptoms of SAD
It can be hard to know where to start, but there are a variety of Seasonal Affective Disorder treatments that you can incorporate into your daily routine.
1. Get as much natural light as you can outdoors
The main way to decrease the symptoms of SAD is to get as much natural light as possible. Go outside and have a brisk walk in the morning to wake you up and soak up as much daylight as possible. This will suppress melatonin levels and boost serotonin production, which should help to improve your mood.
2. Open your curtains and blinds
Sometimes it’s not possible to get outside and get some natural light. When this is the case, keep your curtains and blinds open fully, to let in as much sunlight as possible. Sit near a window if you can, to increase your exposure to natural light.
3. Try out a light box
Light therapy is another common treatment method for Seasonal Affective Disorder. This is where you sit in front of a very bright lamp called a light box, for approximately 30 minutes a day.
Light boxes are used to imitate sunlight, which is missing in the winter months. Light therapy has been shown to be effective in up to 85% of Seasonal Affective Disorder cases.
4. Try out a sunshine simulator
A sunshine simulator is an alarm clock that emits light and gradually gets brighter as it gets closer to your wake-up time - just like the sun. Unlike most alarms that wake you up suddenly, dawn simulators are more gentle in their approach. As your wake-up call is being spread over a longer period of time, you’ll wake-up feeling more refreshed.
5. Practice self-care
It’s also important to practice self-care, as this can help relieve the symptoms of Seasonal Depression. These are actions you can take to develop, protect, maintain and improve physical and mental health and wellbeing.
Some examples of how you can practice self-care include:
- Drink plenty of water
- Take a warm shower or bath
- Set aside time to relax
- Practice mindfulness
- Listen to calming music or read a book
6. Eat healthily
It’s important to eat healthy, nutritious food. This can help us feel better, improve energy levels and may help us sleep better too. Aim for a balanced diet that includes fresh fruit and vegetables, a protein source such as fish, and carbohydrates such as whole grains, pasta and rice. Find out more about how to eat healthily.
7. Exercise regularly
Exercise at least three times a week for 30 minutes. A brisk walk in the fresh Autumn air can do wonders for clearing your mind.
Exercise has a strong connection with mental health. It can help increase serotonin, which is the hormone responsible for our mood. It can also increase endorphins, which are feel-good hormones. Exercise can also help to tire you out before bed, which can help you to fall asleep faster.
Yoga and Pilates have been shown to help ground centre the mind. So, if you're interested in learning more about how these exercises can improve your sleep and mental health, check out our post on yoga and Pilates.
8. Spend time with family and friends
The majority of people take comfort when they’re around family and friends. Being around people you like also helps your brain to release endorphins, which can improve your low mood. However, it’s important to remember that if seeing these people heightens anxiety or impacts your mood, don’t go.
9. Create a sleep routine
Where possible, try to stick to similar wake-up and sleep times. It programmes the body to get into a routine and relax at the right times. But don’t be too hard on yourself either - changing your sleep routine is something that can take time.
If you’re struggling to get out of bed, you could use a sunshine alarm clock. This will help you wake up gently using light.
10. Create a sanctuary to sleep in
If you turn your bedroom into a place you want to sleep in, then falling asleep in the winter months may become a little bit easier. Here are a few ways that can help:
- De-clutter your room
This can help to destress your mind. You can also invest in a comfortable, supportive bed and luxurious bedding to make your sleeping experience as cosy as possible.
- Invest in your sleep
By having a comfortable, supportive bed and luxurious bedding, you can make your sleeping experience as cosy as possible. The overall experience of staying in bed longer resting contributes to your health and wellbeing. It serves as a restorative function both physiologically and mentally - but remember that too much sleep is also unhealthy.
11. Make sure you’re not too hot or cold
Darker nights also go hand-in-hand with colder weather, which can also impact SAD. While it’s tempting to have the central heating on full blast, you need to make sure the bedroom doesn’t become too warm. This is because it can lead to restless sleep.
Ideally, the temperature in your bedroom should be between 16-18°C. If you feel cool in bed, layer the bed with extra blankets which can be easily removed if you get too warm. Alternatively, you could wear bed socks or wear some thicker pyjamas.
12. Talk to your doctor
Sometimes, it’s helpful to talk things through with a professional. You could arrange an appointment with your GP, who may be able to suggest some options to help you reduce symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder.
The types of support your doctor may offer could include:
- Antidepressant medication
- A talking therapy, such as Cognitive Behavioural Treatment
More tips to improve your sleep
Below are some more general top tips you can use to help get a good night’s sleep:
|Tips to improve your sleep||How it can help|
|Turn off screens an hour before bedtime||It helps your brain to relax and wind down from screen time and notifications|
|Avoid alcohol||Your sleep is less likely to be interrupted at the night|
|Cut down on caffeine||It stimulates your brain, so try some herbal tea to relax you instead|
|Wind down properly before bed||Reading, having a bath or listening to soothing music helps your body to relax|
|Make lists||It helps you to plan out what you need to do tomorrow so you can de-stress|
Now you know more about SAD and how you can treat it, we hope this advice supports you. However, it’s important to note that if you think you are suffering from SAD and it’s significantly affecting your day-to-day life, you must see your GP. They can then provide their own Seasonal Affective Disorder treatments and could prescribe medication or offer cognitive behavioural therapy.