This blog post is written by Emily Wheeler and is published as a part of our blog exchange with Tar Heel Tone-Up.
As you’ve surely already noticed, the days are becoming shorter as sunset creeps earlier and earlier into the day and darkness falls by 8pm. Sadly, gone are the long, bright days of summer and we are slowly entering the cooler days of North Carolina autumn where we’ll all be shivering in the mornings and evenings but sweating as we walk between classes mid-day.
It’s important to recognize that even something as natural as earlier sunsets can have dramatic effects on our physical and mental health. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), is a form of depression related to the changing of seasons, but seasonal changes can affect many people’s daily moods and activities whether or not these changes are drastic enough to warrant a diagnosis.
Image by Kim Seng of Flickr Creative Commons
A significant change that can come from shorter lengths of daylight is sleep deprivation for many students. We often don’t have the choice to simply adjust our schedules and go to sleep earlier when it gets dark earlier, which leads us to spend more time reliant on artificial light in the evenings. Bright artificial light inside, when it’s already dark outside, suppresses hormone production in the brain that helps to signal our natural cycle of sleepiness and wakefulness. This may contribute to a feeling of wakefulness at night that will keep you up too late and leave you tired in the morning (1).
Sleep deprivation can increase the stress responses of your body and cause harmful inflammation, especially in individuals with arthritis, and can affect your ability to think clearly and be successful on school assignments and tests (1).
While it’s not likely that any of us will be able to stay away from technology screens or artificial light entirely after dark, we can counter the effects on our sleep cycles by creating a nighttime pattern you can repeat daily as you’re getting ready to go to sleep, such as turning off all overhead lights and relying on lamplight for 20 minutes before bed, or making a habit of reading a paper book for a few minutes before bed to calm your brain and prevent you from reading on brightly lit screens.
Changes in daylight between now and December can also affect your physical health in other ways, especially because people tend to change their patterns of eating and exercise as the seasons change. As the days shorten and both sunrise and sunset are happening around 7 o’clock, many people leave for work or class when it’s still dark outside and return home in the evenings around sunset. This can make it hard to be motivated to exercise after dark, and overeating can become a problem when we spend more time at home per day with easy access to food and snacks. Many people also crave richer “comfort foods” in the fall and winter and tend to eat greater quantities of food with less nutritional value around the time of the various winter holidays.
A combination of all of these factors, colder weather, and dark evenings can make even the healthiest and most active individuals more prone to increased couch potato time.
These issues can be countered by small but conscious daily choices and changes, including:
- Using online exercise videos as guidance and motivation to work out at home instead of convincing yourself to bundle up face the cold again to go out to the gym.
- Committing to exercise at a specific time every day, preferably in the morning before you leave the house or soon after you get home or get off of work to avoid becoming too comfortable and tired to motivate yourself to work out after you’ve already sat down and eaten dinner.
- Reducing or eliminating the presence of super salty or sugary snacks sitting around the house, just waiting to be munched on as soon as you get the craving.
- Allotting time to plan meals and snacks and make a grocery list every week before you go to the store to prevent you from buying unhealthy foods and snacks on a whim and to encourage more conscious food choices and balanced meals throughout the week.
Daylight savings happens on November 2 this year, but we can continue to expect earlier sunsets between now and the winter solstice on December 21. By being aware of how seasonal changes can affect our personal mental and physical well being, we can be prepared with purposeful lifestyle changes and habits to ensure that we stay happy, healthy, and successful in school with every passing day!
- Kelly, Martta. Shorter days can affect physical health as well as mental health. Oct 30, 2014. http://www.nj.com/healthfit/index.ssf/2014/10/sleep_issues_depression_can_become_health_issues