Sunlight and Hibernation

Recently, I’ve pretty much wanted to sleep all the time. I’m getting enough sleep, but all I want to do is roll over in the morning and turn my alarm off and go back to sleep. And then, by five in the evening, I want to go to bed. Needless to say, this is playing hob with my efforts to exercise – it’s hard to do some push-ups, or go walk a mile, when all you want to do is curl up and sleep. So I did a little internet research, and it turns out I’m not alone. There is a phenomena that the UK National Health Service calls “winter tiredness“. And, according to them, it’s caused by lack of sunlight.

As you all know, we just passed the solstice. Which means that, up here in the northern hemisphere, the days are just now starting to get longer. Longer is a relative term, however – locally, sunrise is at 7:54 am and sunset is at 5:19 pm, meaning the sun is up for only 9 hours and 25 minutes. According to the NHS, sunlight makes your brain produce less of a hormone called melatonin (N-acetyl-5-methoxytryptamine, if you want to get technical). And melatonin does a few interesting things in your body, like help regulate your blood pressure and your circadian rhythms. A build-up of melatonin makes you sleepy. Their advice is to try to spend more time outdoors, even if it’s just a few minutes at lunch.

Which makes sense, based on my own anecdotal evidence. I know that when I get out in the sunshine and the fresh air, I certaily feel a lot less sleepy. So if you’re feeling tired during the winter, open the curtains. Get outside. And exercise regularly, because that helps you wake up as well.

It’s important to remember that “winter tiredness” isn’t the same thing as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Both winter tiredness and winter SAD are triggered by reduced levels of sunlight, but winter SAD is far more severe and can result in actual clinical depression. If you find yourself experiencing more than one of the following symptoms, the Mayo Clinic recommends you consult with your doctor:

  • Irritability
  • Tiredness or low energy
  • Problems getting along with other people
  • Hypersensitivity to rejection
  • Heavy, “leaden” feeling in the arms or legs
  • Oversleeping
  • Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
  • Weight gain

And if you are experiencing these symptoms, regardless of whether you have any of the ones on the above list, really consult with your doctor:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless
  • Having low energy
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Having problems with sleeping
  • Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide

It’s natural to be a little tired during the winter. But, if you have it, you don’t have to suffer with depression. Talk to a trusted friend or family member. Talk to your doctor. Let them help you.

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