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How to make it through the dark season

As the days grow darker, many Finland-dwellers experience a whole range of familiar symptoms: disturbed sleep, changes in appetite and mood swings. Attending to factors affecting one’s wellbeing during the dark season can make a real difference to the winter blues.

Hämärä talvimaisema.
Image: Pentti Kallinen / Yle

Feeling anxious about the darkening autumn? Here are five tips to combat what the medical profession calls seasonal affective disorder – or SAD.

1. Light

Image: Matti Sunnari / Yle

SAD is best relieved by light. Natural light is the very best, but research shows that bright light lamps also help. Some four out of five SAD sufferers find these relieve their symptoms, when exposed in the right doses.

Unfortunately busy daily lives often afford little time for sitting in front of the bright light lamps. These are most effective in the mornings between 5.30 and 9 am. A minimum of 30-60 minutes of daily exposure is required, though in the beginning up to 2 hours is recommended.

2. Exercise

Kaksi hiihtäjää.
Image: Pekka Kauranen / Yle

Though SAD is accompanied by a drop in physical activity, this impulse should be resisted. Regular exercise has been found to alleviate the symptoms, as well as improving the results of bright light therapy.

The more one exercises, the greater the health gains (except in the case of heavy exercise, which demands long recovery periods). The Finnish Institute of Occupational Health (TTL) recommends a minimum of 2.5 hours of moderately taxing exercise three days a week for healthy adults.

3. Food

Marjoja pakasterasioissa
Image: Matti Konttinen / Yle

Many put on weight during the winter months. This is not surprising, as SAD symptoms include an increased appetite – especially for sweet foods.

Instead of gorging oneself on quickly absorbed carbohydrates, one should consume fibres, proteins and slowly absorbed carbohydrates. Such goodies are found in salads, root vegetables, full-grain products, berries and fruit.

4. Sleep

Nukkuvan naisen jalat näkyvät peiton alta.
Image: Seppo Sarkkinen / Yle

Sufficient sleep is important during all seasons. However, one should take special care to get enough sleep in the winter. As SAD sufferers typically need more sleep, even long and regular sleep may not be able to rid them of weariness.

Well-timed naps and a few cups of coffee can help to pick you up. A piece of research found that subjects’ alertness and activity levels increased significantly after taking 150 milligrams of caffeine and a 15 minute nap.

5. Rhythm

Turisteja uimarannalla Playa del Inglesissä Kanariansaarilla.
Image: Yle

Go to the disco. Just kidding - actually this refers to finding a good balance between strain and rest. According to the Institute of Occupational Health, rest should be understood as not just physical sleeping; mental rest and variation are also needed. A dynamic social life aids recovery from work.

A holiday in the sunny South might be – or rather is – just what the doctor ordered. Such a trip combines a break from life’s stresses and light therapy. A week in the sun can alleviate SAD symptoms for several weeks after returning to the dark north.  

Some SAD facts:

  • About 85 percent of Finns over 30 say changing seasons affect their moods and behaviour, according to the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health.
  • Half of these suffer from SAD symptoms, and about 1 percent of Finns suffer from a more serious seasonal depression.
  • The symptoms usually emerge in October, and peak between November and January. Towards spring symptoms decrease, until disappearing in the summer.
  • The further north, the more common shorter sleeping hours are. Other SAD symptoms are equally prevalent across the country.

Sources: Yle, Duodecim, THL, TTL

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