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Dr Laura Ringland's Top Tips for when the clocks go back

23rd, Oct 2019

Sleeping well is essential in optimising your physical and mental health. Good quality sleep facilitates healing and strengthens the immune system. Poor sleep is associated with mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern, most commonly manifesting in winter months. The exact cause of SAD isn't fully understood, but a popular theory is that it is linked to reduced exposure to sunlight during the shorter autumn and winter days. A lack of sunlight can increase the production of melatonin, a hormone that can make you feel sleepy and can reduce the production of serotonin which can contribute to low mood or depression.

The body's internal clock is known as circadian rhythm; the body uses sunlight to time various important functions including when one wakens in the morning. Lower light levels during the winter may disrupt the circadian rhythm leading to symptoms of SAD.

Below are 5 top tips on how to combat disrupted sleep and SAD when the clocks go back this autumn:

1) Stick to your routine

In general, "gaining" an hour in the autumn is easier to adjust to than "losing" an hour in the spring. Your circadian rhythm will adjust quickly to a one-hour time change if you don’t change your bedtime or morning alarm. Resist the temptation of a lie-in, get up, get out and make the most of the daylight hours!

2) Eat well

When tiredness kicks in, it’s easy to reach for high-calorie sugary snacks; we crave the energy boost that comes with a blood sugar rise however it is important to recognise that the rapid blood sugar fall that comes afterwards will leave you feeling tired and unenthused. Switch to snacks such as unsalted nuts with slow release energy allowing for sustained physical and mental activity. Also, don’t eat too close to bedtime. A full stomach or indigestion may interfere with sleep quality and the energy boost may keep you awake.

3) Get outdoors.

Don’t use the weather as an excuse to stay indoors! A morning workout can help keep your mood buoyant throughout the day and the exposure to light will help your internal body clock adjust. Alternatively, consider a 30 minute lunch time walk; optimising your melatonin and serotonin levels will help relieve some of the tension built up over the day and ward off low mood and other symptoms of SAD. Exercise has the added benefit of stimulating an endorphin release which gives you a positive mental boost; it is important however to make sure you do not do vigorous exercise, such as running too close to bedtime as it causes mental stimulation which can delay sleep.

4) Avoid smart phones, tablets and laptops immediately before bed.

Use low levels of screen brightness in the evening if use of such devices can’t be avoided. The blue light emitted by screens on smart phones, computers, tablets, and televisions reduce melatonin levels making it harder to fall asleep. The content of emails/browsing can also keep the mind in a state of alertness or angst which can prevent you from falling into a prompt slumber.

5) Resist the temptation to nap

Naps can be relaxing and a way of ‘recharging’, however it is advisable not to overindulge. Taking a long daytime nap will confuse your circadian rhythm, prolong your adjustment to the hour change and it can have a negative impact on the quality of your night’s sleep.

Article wrote by Dr Laura Ringland Private GP, Kingsbridge Private Hospital, Belfast and Maypole Clinic, Holywood.

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