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Seasonal Affective Disorder: Coffee?

I just got back yesterday from a week in Portland, OR. Yes, I purposefully chose to go there in January. I love that city, regardless of the season. And although the ubiquity of caffeine and coffee have become commonplace here in the Carolinas (especially compared to how few speciality coffee shops I remember seeing as a boy), the coffee culture seemed far more pronounced in Portland (as it did in Seattle when I visited there back in 2000).

I don’t really drink coffee for pleasure. I drink it only if it’s already available and I happen to need a jolt of energy. Otherwise, I just really don’t ever think about it. I greatly prefer tea, especially green and white. I can taste far more varieties of nuance in tea. Black coffee all tastes essentially the same to me, no matter its source. The lower dose of caffeine in tea isn’t as likely to trigger my anxiety. Tea also doesn’t make me have to plan for a mad dash to the bathroom, since it isn’t anywhere near as strong a diuretic or laxative as coffee.

Anyway, I began this story by asking Google the question, “Does caffeine help Seasonal Affective Disorder?” I mean, given how much people seem to rely on it in places that get dark and stay dark, I thought it would be interesting to see what benefits people are getting. And it turns out, this use for coffee isn’t helpful at all.

Caffeine isn’t helpful

Yes, some caffeine is good for boosting alertness, energy, stamina, and metabolic burn; however, the amount people seem to be ingesting (and the reason they say they’re consuming it) isn’t helpful in terms of staving off the winter blues. Nearly a year ago to the dot, I wrote an article about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). There I focused on the importance of getting access to a full range spectrum of light. Here I’d like to focus on caffeine and sleep’s effect on SAD in particular and depression in general. I’ll also offer suggestions for what to do to help you get through this dreary time of year. You must get appropriate rest!

First, caffeine affects sleep. There’s no way around it. If you’re drinking it in the afternoon and/or evening (even if you go to bed easily enough at night), the various phases of your sleep will be altered. According to Harvard Medical School, poor quality sleep is one of the most important risk factors for depression. So drinking more than one or two cups of coffee in the morning is not actually making you feel better. If you don’t drink coffee, but ingest similar amounts of caffeine from other sources (e.g. black tea, soda, pre-workout supplements, etc.), the same problem applies to you. Green tea is full of antioxidants, and has enough caffeine to give you just a touch of boost.

Try these 14 suggestions for better sleep and emotional relief:

  1. Get outside! Even on cloudy mornings daylight is 100,000 lux, and the brightest bulbs are only 10,000 lux. This starts your day with a reset to your Circadian Rhythm (i.e. sleep cycle). The fresh air also does you good.
  2. If that isn’t possible, get bulbs that offer full spectrum white light. The jolt of daylight causes you to create serotonin, which helps to elevate your mood and reset your Circadian Rhythm for timing your sleep.
  3. Avoid blue light for a few hours before bed. Turn off all your gadgets and devices. They are telling your brain that it’s morning, and they make it really difficult to get good sleep.
  4. Once you have reset your Circadian Rhythm, go to bed and get up at the same time each day. This helps to stabilize your sleep, whether you are getting too much or too little.
  5. Napping can help, if it doesn’t upset your full sleep later. Naps can be very beneficial, but keep them to around 20 minutes.
  6. Eat your (healthy!) meals at the same time each day to ensure you don’t crave sugar. Sugar and processed foods also undermine sleep. Eat dinner relatively early, so that it isn’t there messing with you when you’re trying to wind down. Also, eating late at night can then throw off your appetite the next day, which sets up a domino effect leading to poor sleep.
  7. Be sure to get Vitamin D. Low levels of Vitamin D contribute to symptoms of depression. You can get this vitamin from your food, but your body makes it from scratch by being exposed to the sun. Yet another reason to get out for a walk, even when it’s cold.
  8. In addition to caffeine, be mindful of alcohol, which is a depressant in and of itself, and which also undermines sleep and the body’s ability to metabolize food.
  9. Avoid walling yourself in and shutting out the world. Set up activities for exercise and socializing. There are lots of winter sports you might do, watch, or learn.
  10. In the spirit of the season, consider volunteering for a good cause. It is very gratifying to be kind and generous, and it’s a good reminder to show gratitude for what’s going well in your life. It gives you something to put into your accomplishment journal.
  11. I’ve found that keeping a daily accomplishment journal (which is far less judgmental than an incomplete to-do list) is very helpful, especially on days when I can’t remember having done anything. That sense of torpor makes me feel guilty, but when I can look back and see how much I’ve done or how much I have to be thankful for it instantly cheers me up. Share or discuss these with others, especially friends or family who will be delighted by your delight.
  12. Try to look at winter the way our ancestors did: It’s a season for rest and gestation. It’s a vital part of the life cycle, and it has some very nice qualities. Rather than focusing on what you don’t like about the dark, wet, and cold, meditate on how contemplative, quiet, and cozy it can be. Warm, candle-lit baths with aromatherapy and good music are particularly nice on cold days.
  13. Randomly break out into a smile and hold it until you literally feel your mood improve. It can take a little while, but be patient. You’ll feel a crack in the bad mood when your laughter comes out from the authentic place that you’d accidentally buried.
  14. SAD is a form of depression that can be very dangerous. If you can, speak to a therapist. They’ll have even more ideas for ways in which to be kind to yourself.

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Jack Kirven is a mobile personal trainer in Charlotte, NC. He is the owner of INTEGRE8T Wellness.

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