What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Often referred to as ‘winter depression,’ seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a season-specific mood disorder that typically strikes during the winter months. For the vast majority of sufferers, SAD symptoms reliably begin during the fall and continue through winter. For others, however, SAD begins in the spring or early summer. Whether observed in winter or summer, there is a clear pattern for every individual with SAD, who may come to dread certain seasons because they know they’ll feel tired or moody.
The exact cause of SAD remains unknown, but many researchers theorize that select hormones may cause changes in the brain during a specific time of the year. For example, a lack of sunlight in winter may impact the brain’s ability to produce the neurotransmitter serotonin. This theory is backed up by the minimal prevalence of SAD in warmer regions in which access to sunlight is always available, regardless of the season.
Symptoms can vary somewhat with SAD, but in general, sufferers experience moodiness and a significant loss in energy. Other symptoms include:
- Losing or gaining weight
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Loss of concentration
- Desire to be alone
- Suicidal thoughts
How Seasonal Affective Disorder Impacts Sleep Patterns
Fatigue is a top symptom of SAD, and yet, people with the disorder tend to spend a lot of time in bed. Because so much of their day is confined to the bedroom, most people with SAD think they get more sleep than they actually do. A study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that people with SAD had unusual and often inaccurate perceptions about sleep, which they share with insomnia sufferers.
Researchers are not completely sure why those with SAD have such a hard time getting the high-quality sleep they need, but serotonin imbalances may play a role. Low serotonin is associated with a variety of sleep disorders, including insomnia and sleep apnea. Researchers believe that serotonin helps to calm the body at bedtime. If serotonin levels are low, it may be impossible to achieve that calming effect — and as a result, the body is never truly ready for deep sleep.
How to Improve Sleep Patterns
People with SAD spend much of their time under the covers, but often, that sleep is not particularly restful. Treating the condition is essential, of course, but a variety of other tactics can also provide a good night’s sleep, even before the mood disorder is fully under control. A solid bedtime ritual is imperative, as is a good mattress and a quiet environment. Computer and mobile device screens that emit blue lights should be avoided within an hour of going to bed, as these have a notoriously negative impact on sleep quality. Other useful tactics include:
- Avoiding exercise right before bedtime
- Avoiding caffeine and alcohol within two hours of going to bed
- Meditation and yoga
- A clean bedroom only used for sleep and sexual activity
Helpful Products For People With SAD
SAD awareness is on the rise, and with it, the number of products designed to help sufferers with their symptoms. Detailed below are a few of the most helpful products and techniques:
Depression causes a significant decrease in olfactory sensitivity, but the opposite is true of SAD — sufferers are actually more sensitive to smells. As a result, many benefit from aromatherapy, which can boost mood during the day and make it easier to fall asleep at night. Lavender, sandalwood, and cedarwood are all known for their ability to promote quality sleep. Some experimentation may be needed, as no one type of essential oil is equally effective for everybody.
Instead of getting ample sunlight during the day, many people with SAD spend their time in front of the blue lights of computers and smartphones, which make it difficult to fall asleep when nighttime arrives. Ending this habit can be a real struggle, but the problem can be mitigated with melatonin shades, which effectively block out blue light and trigger sleepiness.
Light Therapy Boxes
For years, people diagnosed with SAD have been told to invest in light therapy boxes, which are designed to replicate sunlight. Many SAD sufferers have reported success with light therapy, especially when combined with SSRI prescription.
Light therapy boxes are useful, but they can also be incredibly inconvenient — particularly for those who travel frequently. The Re-Timer offers all of the benefits of a typical light box, but with minimal hassle. Worn like a regular pair of glasses, it emits UV-free light, thereby recharging the wearer and counteracting the effects of SAD.
There is no permanent cure for SAD, but a variety of tools and techniques can be employed to minimize its symptoms. With a little effort, it is possible to get quality sleep at night and feel energetic — and excited about life — during the day.