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We are officially 5 days into this winter season and I’m already over it. I’m over bundling up only to peel off the layers throughout my day then bundle back up for the ride home. I’m over the shorter days and even shorter nights as my body adjusts to all things winter. For a few of us, fewer hours of daylight and colder temperatures are an inconvenience. For others, winter means facing weeks of seasonal insomnia due to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).  

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)? 

SAD also commonly known as Seasonal or Winter depression is a mood disorder that typically starts around the Autumn months and becomes increasingly apparent towards the winter. According to Pulmonologist and Sleep specialist Dr Kristo, SAD is commonly experienced by people who reside in climates that experience less sunlight during the winter months. “Sunlight signals to your brain that it is time for your body to be awake and alert. During the dark months of winter, your body’s timing is thrown off, resulting in more sleepy and sluggish feelings during the day. The best treatment for SAD is increasing the amount of natural sunlight that you see during the day” says Dr Kristo. A recent study published by the journal SLEEP also found that people who intentionally expose themselves to 15 to 20 minutes of natural bright light decreased their need for an afternoon nap. 

Symptoms of SAD

People who struggle with SAD tend to experience poor concentration, irritability, fatigue, appetite changes, weight gain, social isolation, feelings of apathy, discontentedness, anxiety, loneliness, sadness, mood swings, excess sleepiness, insomnia and or sleep deprivation.

Young people and women tend to be a lot more susceptible to SAD. I spoke with a sleep specialist from C & N Diagnostics about why women are more prone to dealing with issues that affect their sleep and here’s what they had to say. Women deal with a lot more frequent hormonal shifts or fluctuations, especially during their menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and menopause. During menopause, night sweats and hot flashes can also contribute to their disruption of sleep.

Other Contributing Factors 

  • Other mood disorders, such as major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder
  • Relatives with SAD or other forms of depression or mental health conditions, such as major depression or schizophrenia
  • Residing in cloudy regions

Treatment Options 

Treatment for seasonal affective disorder varies according to the severity of the SAD. Treatments can include a combination of light/phototherapy, psychotherapy and medications. 

Light/phototherapy is one of the first-line treatments and generally starts working in a few days to a few weeks. While light therapy is known to cause very few side effects, Dr Kristo does caution those who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder to share their diagnosis with the health care provider and mental health professional treating them for SAD as light therapy can potentially trigger a manic episode.

Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, is known to be one of the most effective forms of treatment as it helps with:

  • Learning healthy coping mechanisms  
  • Stress management 
  • Implementing healthy behaviours, increasing physical activity and improving sleep patterns
  • Identify and change negative thoughts and behaviours

Medication 

Those who are struggling with severe SAD may be prescribed some antidepressants. As with any sleep or mental disorder, there are no one size fits all as there are different contributing factors.

Home and Lifestyle Hacks 

Herbal remedies, supplements or mind-body techniques are sometimes used to alleviate symptoms.

  • Create a sunnier and brighter environment by opening your curtains or blinds the moment you wake up. If your sunlight is blocked by extended tree branches consider trimming the branches that block the sunlight. Alternatively, you can think about adding skylights to your home. 
  • Spend some time outside! I know you’re going to think I’m crazy for even thinking about suggesting this, let alone doing it! However, experts, heavy on the experts, say that even on cold or cloudy days, outdoor light is beneficial — especially when done within two hours of waking up in the morning.
  • Having a regular exercise routine does not only appease one’s vanity but also activity helps relieve stress and anxiety, both of which can increase SAD symptoms. So why not get in a workout and ignite your endorphins, because who can’t use extra infusions of the happy hormone?  
  • Sleep Routine. In last week’s #Wellness blog ‘How Our Lifestyle Choices Can Disrupt Our Sleep Cycle’, we spoke about the importance of creating a bedtime routine. Having an effective bedtime routine is key to having a healthy sleep schedule. Sleep is especially effective in minimizing or eliminating the onset of SAD. So let’s stop playing with and about our sleep and overall quality of life. Get. Some. Rest. 

NB! Remember to consult with your primary healthcare and mental health care provider when making decisions about your treatment after diagnosis.