Sleep Disorders, Sleep Remedies & Insomnia Relief


Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD) & Depression

Who hasn't suffered from the 'winter blues'? We wake in the dark and go to work in the dark, and by the time we fall asleep, it has long been dark. With the cold weather and gloomy skies, it's no surprise that some people suffer from seasonal depression and an overall sense of lethargy.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD) is a condition that develops when the 'winter blues' become more pronounced and debilitating. SAD affects over 10 million Americans each year. SAD symptoms include fatigue, overall sense of energy, weight gain, an increased appetite (including a craving for sweets), depression, mood swings, and a desire to sleep more. Besides affecting an individual's ability to function normally, SAD can have a strong effect on their ability to get a good night's sleep. It is estimated that roughly 70-80% of people affected by SAD are women. Most people who are affected by SAD will notice onset of the disorder sometime in their 30s. Research has shown that there is a direct link between the SAD and light exposure. People who live in cold northern climates are much more likely to experience SAD symptoms than people who reside in milder Southern climes.

SAD may affect a person's ability to achieve restful sleep. In fact, many times the symptoms of SAD may indicate a sleep disorder. One cannot be sure if an underlying sleep disorder may cause SAD-type symptoms to become more pronounced, or if SAD may make an individual more apt to develop a sleep disorder. Regardless, researchers have shown that there is an inextricable link between seasonal depression and the inability to get a restful night's sleep.

In fact, SAD may be connected to several 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 involves the feeling of tiring too early in the evening, and 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.

What is the connection between SAD and the ability to sleep? Researchers believe the key is in the amount of light that a person is exposed to on a daily basis. If a person does not receive an adequate amount of light, their circadian rhythm, or sleep-wake cycle, may become disrupted, resulting in lack of restful sleep.

What can be done to counter the effects of SAD and restore normal sleep patterns? There are many therapies now available to individuals who suffer from sleep disorders due to seasonal depression. Perhaps the most well known of these is light therapy. Light therapy consists of the daily use of a light box. The light device is simply a box outfitted with full spectrum fluorescent lights. Most people will choose to use the light box in the morning, as some people experience insomnia if they use the light box in the evening.

Most people who undergo light therapy will use their light box for roughly 30 minutes to an hour or more. When first using the light box, users must measure the distance between the light and their eyes. The light must reach one's eyes, although one should not stare directly into the lights. It is best to use the light box during long blocks of time, rather than divide the time into shorter sessions. The light therapy box has been proven to help reduce the effects of SAD, and help establish a normal circadian rhythm.

Other types of therapies and treatments that may help individuals overcome the effects of seasonal depression include regular exposure to outdoor light and daily exercise. Even if the sky is gloomy and overcast, research has shown that SAD-affected individuals can benefit from taking daily walks and getting regular exercise. Getting exposure to light can help stabilize a person's circadian rhythm, and will also help alleviate the effects of SAD-induced sleep disorders. If SAD symptoms are pronounced or severe, an individual may be prescribed anti-depression and anti-anxiety medications, including SSRI drugs such as Paxil and Zoloft. Cognitive psychotherapy may also help relieve the effects of seasonal depression, which in turn may help keep sleep disorders in check.

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