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Remedies For The Autumn Blues

Feeling moody? Not sure why? Chances are that shortened days mean less sunshine and more activities crammed into fewer hours. Fortunately, The Doctor is In...Dr. Tracey Marks, that is.

The cool crisp days of Autumn can be a welcome relief after a hot, steamy summer. While most of us enjoy watching the leaves change color and look forward to traditional Fall activities, for many, the changing seasons are fraught with the negative effects of shorter days and longer nights.

Why Sunlight is Important

Sunlight does more than just illuminate our world; it also helps our body produce Vitamin D and there is a known correlation between reduced exposure to natural light and negative moods.  Between the Autumn Equinox and Winter Solstice the days rapidly become shorter.  For those living in northern latitudes, this can mean leaving for work in the darkness each morning and returning home at twilight.  It's no wonder that reports of Seasonal Affective Disorder increase as one gets further from the equator.  

Your body clock (circadian rhythms) is also influenced by exposure to sunlight.  As sunlight decreases over the course of the day, your visual system sends messages to your brain that triggers the production of melatonin, which makes you feel sleepy.  As the sun rises in the morning, you stop producing melatonin and your body gets the signal to wake and become mentally alert.

The lack of sunlight in the fall and winter months can throw your body clock out of whack, leading to grogginess/brain-fog, sleep problems such as insomnia and feelings of depression.  Even though the clocks move forward in the fall to (hopefully) give us more sunlight after school and work, waking up and leaving the house in the dark each morning makes it hard to get a good start to your day.

What You Can Do about the Autumn Blues

Since most of us don't have the option of moving to the equator every Fall, here are some practical steps you can take to stay upbeat and motivated even as the days grow shorter.

  1. Establish good sleep routines.  It's hard to get up and going when the sun won't be out until well after you've left the house!  Early-evening darkness might make it easier to fall asleep early, but many of us sabotage that by bathing ourselves in artificial lights from laptops, televisions and other electronic devices which make it difficult to fall asleep. 
    Instead of watching TV or browsing the internet before bed, try taking a warm bath and reading by lamplight to wind down.  You still might not leap out of bed with a smile on your face on cold dark mornings, but getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night will help keep your mind and body working at their best.
  2. Get sunlight whenever you can.  Can you take a walk during your lunch hour?  Do some of your errands on foot?  Even just opening the blinds and letting the sun shine can do wonders for your mood.  Make getting even a few minutes of sunlight each day a priority.  
    If you live in a climate or at a latitude where sunlight is elusive for days or weeks at a time or if your symptoms are severe, talk to your doctor about light therapy.  Light boxes emit a blue light that mimics daylight.  Standard household bulbs or office lights don't suffice.
  3. Stay active.  We have a natural inclination to hunker down in our own homes as the temperature drops.  While there is nothing wrong with warm, cozy evenings at home, keep in mind that the less you do, the less you'll want to do and inactivity and social isolation can exacerbate depression.
    Find a way to commit yourself to your favorite activities so that you'll be less likely to blow them off.  You could find a work-out buddy, join a reading group, participate in a sporting league or sign up for an art class.  What you do is not as important as keeping yourself active and having regular contact with other people.
  4. Consider Vitamin D supplementation.  Studies show a correlation between Vitamin D deficiency and depression.  If you suspect that you might be deficient, talk to your doctor about getting your Vitamin D levels tested and whether or not supplementation would be right for you.
  5. Exercise regularly.  Staying fit and active is a good idea no matter what time of year it is; however it can be a bit tricker to get enough exercise when it's cold, wet and grey outside.  If exercising outdoors is not an option, indoor gyms and swimming pools are a great option for staying active all year long.

Physical activity can help you deal with stress, improve your moods and increase your energy levels.  Exercising first thing in the morning can help you "pump up" for the day ahead, while afternoon exercise can help tire you out so that you fall asleep easily at night.