How Seasonal Affective Disorder affects sleep

Got the winter blues? How Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can affect your sleep

If you look out your window during the British winter, chances are there isn’t a lot to get excited about (unless it’s snowing). With the days getting darker and the weather looking pretty grey, it’s perfectly understandable if you begin to feel a little down in the dumps. However, for many people, winter can seriously affect their mood and bring on depression.

In the UK, around 6% of adults are affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder (Patient.info), a condition that can have wide reaching effects on day-to-day lives. It can also have an impact on the amount and quality of sleep that sufferers are able to get. In this blog post, we’ll take a closer look at what causes SAD, how it can affect your sleep, and the treatment options available.

What is SAD?

SAD isn’t just a case of feeling low because the weather isn’t great, it’s a form of depression that can be clinically diagnosed. The condition can be present throughout the year but, for most sufferers, the disorder is at its worst when the days get shorter in the winter. Though the exact cause is still debated, it has been linked to increasing levels of darkness and the sun’s lower position each day, which leads to lower exposure to sunlight.

The widely accepted theory is that less sunlight exposure can affect the hypothalamus, which is the part of the brain that produces melatonin and serotonin. It’s also responsible for the body’s internal clock. Higher levels of melatonin, the hormone that can make you sleepy, and lower levels of serotonin, the hormone that affects mood, appetite, and sleep, can lead to a feeling of tiredness and low mood. Combine this with a disruption of your body clock, and you can see why SAD can be such a debilitating disorder.

Some typical symptoms of SAD include:

  • Low energy
  • Depression and feelings of hopelessness
  • Less interest in hobbies and activities
  • Changes in appetite and weight
  • Trouble getting to sleep
  • Feeling sleepy and oversleeping
  • Finding it hard to concentrate

If you find that you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you should visit the NHS’s website, which has more information about when you should contact a GP, as well as further information about diagnosing SAD.

How does SAD affect sleep?

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Because the theorised causes of SAD are closely linked to the part of your brain that is largely responsible for sleep, sufferers can experience exacerbated sleep disorders. A 2016 study looked at Finnish people diagnosed with SAD and how their sleep was disrupted found that 25% experienced insomnia and 16% reported having regular nightmares, compared to just 7.6% and 2.4% of the general population respectively.

Hypersomnia, where you sleep too much, has been found to be much more common than insomnia, though both affect SAD sufferers. This was found in a 1994 study, where 80% of SAD patients said they experienced oversleeping, while 10% said they couldn’t get to sleep. The same research discovered that the amount of time spent in deep sleep decreased too, which shows that, even if someone with SAD falls asleep, they may not benefit from the same quality of rest as someone else.

What are the best treatments for SAD?

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It’s important to know that there are plenty of things you can do to ease the symptoms of SAD. There are lifestyle changes, therapies, and medication that can be used to treat the disorder, and we’ve listed some of the most effective below:

  • Expose yourself to as much natural light as possible: Getting outdoors during daylight hours or sitting by a window when you are indoors can maximise the amount of sunlight you are exposed to. This can be very beneficial for counteracting displaced hormone levels and for keeping your body clock on track.
  • Getting a lot of exercise: Exercise is great for SAD as it releases endorphins, the body’s natural antidepressant, and boosts low levels of serotonin. Plus, if you exercise through the day outdoors, you’ll be able to get a lot of exposure to sunlight. Force yourself to get up for a run on dark mornings and you’ll benefit through the day.
  • Light therapy: It is possible to get a lamp called a light box to artificially replicate sunlight. These lamps can then be used in sessions to increase exposure to light. You can find out more about choosing and buying a light box in this guide from Sad.org.uk.
  • Talking therapies: Therapy – such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and counselling — is a very common way of combatting depression. The power of talking to someone about your problems, thoughts, or feelings can work for many people. Your doctor should be able to recommend a type of therapy and help you take the next step.
  • Antidepressant medication: There are many types of effective antidepressant available, and your GP will be able to talk you through the best options for you.

As you can see, there are plenty of treatment options and support available for people who suffer from SAD. Like we’ve mentioned before, if you think you might be suffering from the condition, get in touch with your GP who will be able to help you further.

If you have any questions or would like help creating the best environment for sleep, then get in touch. Our blog and advice centre are also great places to get extra information.

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