I live in New York and right now, the days are abysmally short. It starts getting dark around 4 PM, and that’s about when I start feeling blue. It’s hard to stay upbeat when the weather is so cold and so much of your life is spent under artificial lights. I can only imagine what it must be like in Alaska! Seasonal Affective Disorder runs rampant through the population during the northeast’s winter. In some people, it’s a mild feeling of dysphoria, just feeling down in the dumps. This is called sub-clinical SAD. In others, it’s a full-blown depression—the kind where you can’t get out of bed and can’t find pleasure in normal everyday activities. Severe SAD can be debilitating. Of course, like with most emotional disorders, sleep plays an important role—perhaps more than most in this case, since daylight is so closely linked to circadian rhythms. There’s a spring/summer version of SAD too, characterized by anxiety and restlessness, but we’ll be focusing on the winter variety here.
Melatonin’s Role in SAD
Researchers have found that people experiencing clinical SAD tend to have high levels of melatonin. This makes sense since melatonin is inhibited by light. Without light, it’s produced in abundance. Melatonin, also called the sleep cycle hormone, is responsible for regulating sleep. Recently the Sleep Advisor wrote a blog post on Melatonin, which is informative. Higher than normal levels can lead to lethargy, exhaustion and excessive sleepiness or, paradoxically, insomnia. Sleeping more or less than usual can exacerbate symptoms. Excessive sleeping can perpetuate lethargy, overeating, and a feeling of detachment from the world. People often become antisocial and reclusive and spend a lot of time indoors. Insomnia can cause severe mood swings, overeating, a compromised immune system, and troubled relationships.
Regulating Sleeping Habits for Relief
Making yourself keep consistent sleeping hours can help to regulate melatonin, even without help from the sun. It’s also a good idea for developing healthy sleeping habits in general, at any time of the year. The human body responds to habit. If you always go to sleep at the same time and wake up at the same time, your brain (and the hormones therein) will respond to the habituation. It may also help to invest in a comfortable and supportive mattress. Making your bed as cozy and welcoming as you can will help make sleep more restful. More restful sleep leads to a healthier, more alert, and more productive morning.
If you’re really struggling to regulate your sleep on your own, light therapy with a light box may help. Light boxes mimic light from the sun, stimulating brain chemicals and alleviating symptoms. SAD sufferers typically find them very effective, especially with consistent use.