If you’re reading this from the northern hemisphere, you’re just days from the winter solstice and the shortest day of the year. With limited daylight hours and long nights, you’re likely to find yourself sleeping more (or at least wishing you were.)
Is it normal to feel this way? Yes… and no. Here’s the lowdown on winter sleep, fighting the winter blues, and seasonal affective disorder.
According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a type of recurring depression that appears seasonally, around the winter solstice when the days are shortest. Of particular relevance to Circady readers, SAD can include a sleep component: typically excessive sleeping or hypersomnia. In fact, science indicates that people prone to SAD may over-produce the sleep hormone melatonin and this could play a role in their symptoms.
Like other forms of depression, SAD is identified by key depression criteria. The National Institutes of Mental Health lists these as:
- Feeling depressed most of the day and most days
- Feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness
- Low or little energy, feeling sluggish or (for some) feeling agitated
- Loss of enthusiasm for activities you once enjoyed
- Sleep pattern changes
- Changes in eating routines or weight
- Difficulty concentrating on tasks
- Frequent thoughts of suicide or death
What makes SAD different than other types of depression is that symptoms will be more pronounced or only exhibited in the winter months. Also common during winter SAD is:
- Overeating, especially carbohydrates
- Weight gain
- Increased or excessive sleeping, also known as hypersomnia
- Social “hibernation” or withdrawal
(By the way, although not the focus of this blog, there’s a form of summer SAD that’s possible, too. With summer SAD, symptoms can be almost the opposite of those of winter SAD. For instance, summer SAD may manifest with agitation, anxiety, violent episodes, weight loss, and/or insomnia.)
Who’s at risk for Winter SAD?
According to the journal Depression Research and Treatment, women are four times more likely to experience SAD.
You’re also more at risk for SAD if you live farther from the equator, says the journal Psychiatry Research. In Alaska, for instance, 9% of people are believed to experience SAD and in Canada researchers found the number to be 6%. But in Florida, it’s believed only 1% of people experience SAD.
But wait, just because you may sleep more in the winter doesn’t necessarily mean you’re experiencing SAD. It’s actually quite common for people to increase their sleep during the colder, darker months of the year. According to the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, nearly 50% of people sleep up to an extra 2 hours per day in the winter.
Which begs the common question, how much sleep does the average adult really need and when does one become concerned about hypersomnia? The National Sleep Foundation says that adults ages 18–64 typically need 7–9 hours of sleep per night while older adults (65+) need a little less (7–8 hours per night.)
So how do you know if you’re sleeping too much and if something else might be going on (like SAD)? First take a look at the other symptoms of SAD mentioned above. Also, remember, as mentioned above, it is normal to sleep a bit more in the winter and it’s also normal to sleep more during periods of stress or illness (even WebMD says so).
Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about changes in your mood or activity level, if it seems like your need to sleep is interrupting the normal functions of your life, if you’re having trouble sleeping and if self-care isn’t helping, or if you’re experiencing any new or unusual symptoms.
There are treatments for SAD including antidepressants, cognitive behavioral therapy, and light therapy (also known as phototherapy). Your healthcare provider can help you determine whether treatment is needed and what the right combination of treatments may be to meet your individual needs.
Self-Care Tips to Help You Beat the Winter Blues
Just as it’s common to sleep more in the winter, it’s also common to occasionally feel a bit down during the colder, darker days. Sometimes these slight mood shifts are called the “winter blues.”
While nothing can replace the care and expertise of a knowledgeable healthcare provider, for mild symptoms there are some things you can do to help yourself get out of a winter rut.
The Mayo Clinic recommends:
- Getting outside: Expose yourself to daylight in the great outdoors. Even if it’s not sunny or warm, outdoor light can benefit your moods. Take your coffee or tea break outside (bundle up!) or take a walk. Outdoor light is especially helpful if you soak it in within about two hours of waking up.
- Exercising regularly: Exercise can improve your stress and energy levels and boost your mood. This can help you to fight off the winter blues.
- Making your environment brighter: Prioritize the light. As mentioned above, get outside as much as you can. But even when indoors you can boost your light consumption, too. Sit near windows and open curtains and blinds to let in more light.
And remember, summer is coming back again soon enough. Until then, we wish you warmth, coziness, and a light-filled window seat.