How Seasonal Affective Disorder Affects Sleep

Hands up if you have ever suffered from the winter blues. You know the feeling when you wake, and it is dark -you go to work or school in the dark, and then you come home, and it is dark again. Add to that the cold weather and gray gloomy skies, it is no wonder that around 10 million people in the US alone suffer from the symptoms of winter depression otherwise known as Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD during the winter months.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a condition that develops when the winter blues become more pronounced and debilitating with symptoms that include depression, fatigue, overall lack of energy, weight gain, mood swings, and a desire to sleep more.

6 Signs You Have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Seasonal Affective Disorder and Sleep

Aside from affecting a person’s ability to function normally, S.A.D also affects our ability to get a decent night’s sleep. Out of all the people that are affected by S.A.D, it is estimated that roughly 70 to 80% of those people are women, and most people will not notice the onset of the disorder until they are in their thirties.

Studies and research have proven that there is a direct link between seasonal affective disorder and light exposure. People who live in the colder Northern Hemisphere are more likely to experience S.A.D symptoms than those that live in milder Southern climes.

S.A.D may affect a person’s ability to achieve restful sleep, and many times the symptoms of S.A.D may indicate a sleep disorder. It has not been proven whether an underlying sleep disorder may cause SAD type symptoms to become more pronounced, or if S.A.D may make a person more susceptible to developing a sleep disorder. Regardless of this, research has shown that there is an undeniable link between seasonal depression and the inability to get a restful night’s sleep.

SAD and Sleep Phase Disorders

In fact, SAD may be connected to several other sleep disorders, including Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder and Advanced Sleep Phase Disorder.

Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder involves the inability to fall asleep, and the urge to sleep late into the morning. Advanced Sleep Phase Disorder is the opposite, with the sufferer tiring too early in the evening and then waking too early in the morning. Both disorders can be traced to the jarring effect that seasonal depression and other SAD like symptoms have on the circadian rhythms.

The key connection between SAD and the ability to sleep is in the amount of light that a person is exposed to on a daily basis. If that person does not receive an adequate amount of light, their circadian rhythm or body clock becomes confused, resulting in the lack of restful sleep.

Seasonal Affective Disorder Light Therapy

There are many therapies now available to people who suffer from sleep disorders due to seasonal depression. Light Therapy is probably the most well known of those treatments. Light therapy consists of the daily use of a light box, which is simply a box fitted with full spectrum fluorescent lights.

Most people who undergo light therapy will use their light box for roughly 30 minutes to an hour or more. This should ideally be done in the morning, as some people may experience insomnia if they use the light box in the evening.

It is important, when first using the light box, that users measure the distance between the light source and their eyes. Although the light must reach the eyes, the user should not stare directly into the lights. It is equally important, if light therapy is to have any effect, that the light box is used during one long block of time, rather than a number of shorter sessions. The overall effect of light therapy has been proven to help reduce the effects of seasonal affective disorder, whilst also helping to establish a normal circadian rhythm.

Other forms of therapy that may help people overcome the effects of seasonal depression include regular exposure to outdoor light and a daily exercise routine. Even on those gray and gloomy days, research has shown that SAD sufferers can benefit from taking daily walks and getting regular exercise.

Exposure to light can help stabilize a person’s circadian rhythm, and will also help alleviate the effects of SAD induced sleep disorders. If seasonal affective disorder symptoms are more severe, a doctor may prescribe anti depression and antianxiety medications, including SSRI drugs such as Paxil and Zoloft. Cognitive psychotherapy is another treatment that may help relieve the effects of seasonal depression, which in turn should help keep resulting sleep disorders in check.