With winter fast approaching and the time change, most of us are waking up in the morning to darkness and returning home from work or school in the dark. Angela Lane, psychology fellow in psychiatry and behavioral health at Marshfield Clinic Health System, said daylight changes can affect your mood and sleep, but there are ways to adjust to the shorter days.
Our brains produce and release two hormones – serotonin and melatonin – related to sunlight and darkness. Serotonin production is triggered by sun exposure and is known to improve mood. Melatonin is triggered by darkness and is associated with sleep.
Healthy sleep routine
Shorter daylight hours can affect your sleep schedule. As you may suspect, Lane said you might sleep more during the winter months because of the increased production of melatonin.
“Until there was artificial light, our ancestors would wake with the rising sun and fall asleep when darkness fell,” she said. “With the shorter days and less sunlight, more melatonin is produced enacting the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) to tell our bodies to rest or sleep.”
Because sleep hygiene is important, Lane recommends going to bed at the same time and waking up at the same time daily. “Yes, even on weekends,” she said.
Other tips for sleep include no naps for more than 30 minutes, turn off distractions like television and phone, and use your bed for sleep and sex only. By doing so, your brain will only associate the bed with those things and the blue light from your phone or tablet won’t keep your brain stimulated and awake.
Mood also can be affected by the amount of hormones produced and released in your body. However, Lane said the likelihood of days with less daylight having a big change in mood for one particular day is unlikely because of the gradual reduction in sunlight exposure over the period of weeks to months.
“It’s easier to think of shorter daylight hours in terms of jet lag from traveling to a different time zone,” she said. “The body attempts to adjust to the natural sunlight or lack of, which is something the human body has done since the beginning of time.”
If you feel your mood has a dramatic change during the winter months, it could be Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Lane said SAD is related to the lack of serotonin production, and may have a bigger impact in mood. If you experience this shift in mood, related to the seasonal changes, you should consult with a provider.
Other options for you
Beyond the typical method of “eat healthy, exercise and keep a sleep routine,” Lane suggests phototherapy or light therapy for some who struggle adjusting to the time change.
“A special light may be purchased or prescribed to mimic the effects of sunlight,” she said. “In order for the light therapy to be effective, the light must be 10,000 lux and people are to be exposed anywhere from 20-45 minutes a day, depending on the amount of lux and what their body may need to experience the benefits. Make sure to follow the instructions.”
You also could try dusk-to-dawn alarm clocks. These would mimic the rising and setting of the sun to help regulate the SCN.
Talk with your provider if the daylight changes disrupt your everyday life. Your provider will be able to know the treatment option that is right for you.