Strategies for dealing with loss of sunlight

Updated: October 23, 2014 - 11:24 am

Q: What are some ways to cope with dwindling daylight as the seasons change? 

We all encounter a transition as our bodies recalibrate to the shorter days in autumn. For some, the reduced sunlight has minimal effect but for others it can have a big impact on their mood and quality of life. It’s understood that the change in sunlight impacts our circadian rhythm and the levels of serotonin and melatonin in our brain. Serotonin leads to feelings of contentment while melatonin is implicated in our sleep-wake cycle. This explains why you may find yourself wanting to hibernate and load-up on food this time of year.

One of the main causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder (and its milder version “winter blues”) is lack of sunlight. This is when a person experiences increased sadness and low motivation during the late fall or winter months, with mood and energy improving in the spring and summer. Typical symptoms are daytime drowsiness, low motivation, over-sleeping, irritability, poor concentration and cravings for sweets and carbohydrates. Severity of symptoms can change depending on the severity of the winter (look no further than last winter!) and whether you have the opportunity to briefly escape to a sunnier destination. 

It’s crucial for those more vulnerable to “winter blues” to maintain structure, community and activity. Consider the following tips to feel balanced as the days get shorter and temperatures drop:

Physical Activity

I recommend you make this a “non-negotiable” with yourself. As a physical therapist once stated “motion is lotion,” and this is true not only for our joints but for the fluidity of neurotransmitters in the brain that promote balanced mood and vitality. There’s simply no getting around the vast health benefits to staying active each day. Alternating throughout the week between strength training, cardiovascular exercise and meditative movement is best to prevent injury as well as boredom.

Nutrition

Consume warmer meals such as stews that contain filling foods such as root vegetables, legumes and leafy greens to feel grounded and stave off cravings. Eat more foods that contain Omega 3 fatty acids and the amino acid Tryptophan. This is found in lean proteins such as fish, turkey, chicken, dairy products, avocados, and bananas. These foods can promote serotonin. Also be sure to boost your Vitamin D intake. Studies have found that taking this vitamin, which our bodies naturally produce when the sun touches our skin, can help regulate mood.

Stay hydrated

Sleepiness due to the darker days may lead you to reach for an extra cup of coffee but this can keep you dehydrated. Germs remain airborne longer in dry air so prevent illness by adding moisture to your body by drinking plenty of fluids and using a humidifier in your home.

Light therapy

This involves exposure to a full-spectrum light by sitting in front of a box containing light bulbs with a screen. By allowing the skin and periphery of our pupils to absorb the light, it is understood that a “light box” influences our circadian rhythm, the body’s internal clock. Depending on when bright light is presented, the body’s internal clock, which controls daily rhythms of body temperature, hormone secretion, and sleep patterns, shifts ahead or becomes delayed. Light therapy can correct an inner clock by stimulating chemicals in the brain connected to mood. One example is the hormone melatonin, which in excess can lead to sleepiness. This may explain why people not getting the light they require feel lethargic. Research indicates that reseting or maintaining the schedule of your internal clock through light therapy sessions can help alleviate low mood. This is particularly true when used consistently for about 20–30 minutes per day, typically in the morning upon waking. Experiment with the time of day and length of time that’s best for you. 

Community

It’s difficult to initiate and maintain socializing as it gets darker and colder. Bring structure into your week to prevent isolation and connect with others. Consider registering for a group event or starting a new hobby. Enlisting the support of others certainly helps maintain motivation and provide accountability. 

Yoga and meditation

With it’s focus on movement paired with breathing, different styles of yoga can assist in bringing energy to those who feel lethargic or bringing calm to those who feel stress. Research indicates yoga can normalizes your blood pressure, lower heart rate, relax muscles, improve digestion, boost immunity, and help sleep patterns. Since many who identity with the “winter blues” can be hard on themselves, I recommend having a meditation practice to assist with letting go of that inner-critic. This can help you remember your feelings aren’t permanent and you’re not alone.  This is an ancient medicinal practice which scientific research increasingly supports.

We can all thrive amidst the gradual darkness with this prescription of movement, nutrition, and community. In our culture of busyness, this time of year is also a perfect opportunity to give yourself permission to slow down a bit. 

Dr. Rachel Allyn is a licensed psychologist in private practice. Learn more about her unique style of therapy at DrRachelAllyn.com. Send questions to Rachel@DrRachelAllyn.com.