Seasonal Affective Disorder

For all of my followers in the northeast United States, it’s that time of the year again!

The sun is rising late and setting early, the sky is cloudy, and the temperature is dropping. All this can contribute to a condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.).

S.A.D. affects about 6% of the United States every year. Common symptoms may include oversleeping, low energy, carb cravings, poor focus, social withdrawal, lack of pleasure, and hopelessness.

It is believed that S.A.D. is caused by a lack of sunlight, resulting in a skewed circadian rhythm and lowered serotonin levels.

Fortunately, there are many things one can do to combat symptoms and improve their emotions and outlook.

The first step is to purchase a “lightbox” for light therapy. These emit a much brighter and whiter light than typical lamps. Exposure to this bright light, particularly first thing in the morning, will simulate the sunrise, improving serotonin production and establishing a healthy circadian rhythm.

I am in the process of purchasing such a light source and will provide a review of my personal experience with this protocol.

The second recommendation is to stay active. Find 30 to 60 minutes every day for exercise. Exercise is known to improve mood by providing a sense of success as well as releasing endorphins in the brain.

The last recommendation I can make is to eat healthy. This means starting your day with a large serving of protein and ending your day with a moderate serving of carbohydrates such as sweet potatoes or fruits. Adequate protein in the morning, and throughout the day, will provide the body and brain with amino acids necessary for healthy cognitive function and stable emotions. Carbs at night will help induce sleep and up-regulate serotonin production. Eat fewer carbs throughout the day to avoid blood sugar crashes, causing lethargy and furthering negative emotions.

Many people find success with certain supplements. I personally have tried 5-HTP (a serotonin precursor), GABA (a dopamine precursor), and melatonin (the brains natural sleep chemical). Thus far, the melatonin seems to be the most effective, but only at regulating proper sleep-wake cycles. I noticed no results from any other supplement, regardless of timing or dose.

I do increase my supplemental Vitamin D in the winter from 2,000 to 5,000 or 10,000 a day. I don’t notice a direct result from this but I’m lucky if I get 5 minutes of direct sunlight a day when the temperature drops below freezing. Sunlight is our only significant source of vitamin D, and low levels have been linked to depression as well as many physical conditions.

Finally, there is always the option of medications. If feelings of hopelessness or despair become strong enough, visit a doctor to discuss further options.

I will post a follow up after I experiment with light therapy / dawn simulation for a few weeks. Try these tactics and let me know if you have some of your own!

SAD

Optimizing Sleep

In my post regarding recovery I mentioned the importance of sleep. With our busy lives, it’s easy to forgo the recommended 8 to 10 hours of sleep a night. I’m sure many of you will agree that, after enough nights of only 4 to 6 hours of sleep, and enough caffeine, it’s not difficult to survive. But, even if you feel like you can perform just as well, there is no substitute for a full 8 hours of sleep on a regular basis.

Some of the benefits of adequate sleep include: recovery from exercise or injury; release of human growth hormone; improved immune system; healthy brain development; and improved memory function.

Below are some recommendations I find extremely helpful when trying to optimize my sleep quantity and quality.

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Room Darkening Shades – In my bedroom I have typical pull-down shades that are sufficient at blocking out stray car headlights. However, I also have fabric curtains that I draw over the shades to provide an even darker environment. This way, when the sun starts to rise in the early hours of the morning, I don’t wake up too early.

As night falls and the sky darkens, the body naturally starts producing melatonin, a hormone that maintains healthy circadian rhythms (sleep-wake cycles) and also acts as an antioxidant. This brings us to the next tactic…

Eliminate Blue Light – Just as darkness will promote the release of melatonin, bright lights, particularly blue/white lights (such as the sun, fluorescent bulbs, or electronic screens), blocks its release in the brain.

The best thing to do is turn off all electronic devices an hour or two before bed. However, I know how difficult it is to get home at 7 or 8 at night and avoid relaxing in front of the television or responding to last minute e-mails. For this reason, I would recommend downloading “f.lux” for computers. This is a program that will adjust the color of the screen according to the time of day. It is free and runs as a benign background program.

Besides this download, I also use candles in my house at night. Not only will this help prepare my mind and body for sleep, it saves on electricity and creates a very comfortable environment.

Wind Down Ritual – This is one tactic that will require some experimentation. Perhaps you’ve heard the saying that humans are “creatures of habit”. Just as regular release of melatonin will develop proper wake-sleep cycles, so will other habits or rituals.

Starting at around 8 PM every night, I roll on a foam roller to massage my muscles from the day. I usually listen to a fitness and nutrition podcast during this time as a substitute for watching television. Finally, I take a quick shower and occasionally have a cup of herbal tea (chamomile and mint blends are my favorite) with a teaspoon of magnesium.

By the time 9 or 10 rolls around, there is nothing I want to do more than lay down on my comfy mattress and crawl under my cool sheets.

Reduce Coffee Intake – Key word being “reduce”…I’d never be as bold as to suggest entirely eliminating coffee! I personally start every day with a cup of the darkest roast coffee I can find or a couple shots of espresso.

In terms of sleep, studies show that one cup of coffee consumed at noontime results in heightened cortisol at 10 PM. High levels of cortisol can have negative effects on the brain and body. An important note is that this study was conducted with decaffeinated coffee! This would suggest that it is not the caffeine content of the coffee that raises cortisol. Due to this fact, I’d recommend finishing your coffee with breakfast and switching to tea for the rest of the day (many teas contain compounds that actually lower stress).

White Noise – Finally, you can buy an inexpensive white noise machine or run a fan while you’re sleeping. This ambient noise will help block out disturbing sounds that may prevent you from falling asleep.  Just don’t forget to blackout any lights that these electronics may give off!

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There are plenty more things you could try, including meditation or melatonin supplementation, but these are the specific tactics I found most useful when developing healthy sleeping patterns. If you want any more methods tailored to your lifestyle, don’t hesitate to contact me directly!