Non-SAD

I am a little too prone to use black humor to distance myself from the depressing effects of the long, cold darkness of winter, which sometimes leaves people worrying about me unnecessarily. So I thought I’d mention that despite a bit of anxiety over the inevitable turn of the seasons, my mood is currently pretty great.

Beyond just feeling good right now, I’m hopeful. Over the past decade I’ve been handling winters better and better.

The biggest factor, I think, is that I no longer have a job to lose, so I no longer get into the spiral where seasonal depression makes me less productive, making me anxious about losing my job, making me more depressed, making me even less productivity. Sadly, advising others to take advantage of this strategy is not very useful (although I do and will continue to support and advocate for either a citizen wage or a guaranteed job).

Putting early retirement aside as impractical for most people, I thought I’d briefly summarize my other current practices—mostly ordinary coping strategies—both as a reference for myself any time I start to feel my brain chemicals coming on, and perhaps as a resource for other people. Here’s what’s working for me:

  • Taking delight in things. In particular, I take delight in the opportunity to wear seasonally appropriate woollies. I also like to spend time in the Conservatory, go to art galleries or museums, listen to live music, and generally go on artist’s dates.
  • Getting plenty of exercise. Last winter I managed to get out for a run almost every week. As fall approaches I’m getting back to my lifting. (Here’s a great resource on the current science on using exercise to treat and prevent depression.)
  • Spending time in nature. I do that all summer, and it may be part of the reason that my mood is generally great in the summer. But I can do it in the winter too. (I don’t seem to have a post on this topic. I’ll be sure to write one this winter. In the meantime you can find various mentions by clicking on the vitamin N tag over on the sidebar.)
  • Light therapy. I’ve used my HappyLight™ for years, and it does seem to help. Getting outdoors anytime in the first couple of hours after dawn is probably even better—another thing I find easy to do in the summer that would probably help just as much in the winter.
  • Taking Vitamin D through the winter. The evidence for any benefit is scant, but even if it only helps through the placebo effect, it is at least a safe, cheap placebo. (There’s good evidence that people with high levels of vitamin D are healthier, but very little evidence that supplementing vitamin D makes people healthier. It could easily be purely associational—maybe more time spent outdoors both boosts vitamin D levels and makes people healthier and happier.)
  • Anything that boosts neurogenesis. That’s most of the things listed above, but lots of other things too, such as engaging in creative work. Also on the list are calorie restriction and adequate consumption of omega-3 fatty acids.

I have a few new possibilities up my sleeve:

  • There’s recent evidence that sauna bathing is dramatically effective at treating depression, probably through many mechanisms including the activation of heat-shock proteins. (One thing on my to-do list is finding a local fitness center or spa with a sauna and investigating the cost of a three or four month membership.)
  • Related to heat exposure is cold exposure, which activates many of the same protective proteins that heat exposure does. Cold exposure, of course, is trivially easy to achieve in the winter—just wear a coat or jacket one notch less warm than would be most comfortable.
  • Obviously sleep is very important, and with my Oura ring I’m tracking my own sleep carefully. This has already been helpful, and I’m hoping to be able to do more to improve my sleep (and thereby my mood) in the winter as well.

That’s what I’ve got at the moment, but I’m always on the lookout for things to alleviate seasonal depression.

The sad truth about technology writers (sleep-tracking edition)

For an article in the New York Times, technology writer Brian X. Chen wore a sleep-tracker for a couple of weeks. He reports:

Ultimately, the technology did not help me sleep more. It didn’t reveal anything that I didn’t already know, which is that I average about five and a half hours of slumber a night. And the data did not help me answer what I should do about my particular sleep problems. In fact, I’ve felt grumpier since I started these tests.

Source: The Sad Truth About Sleep-Tracking Devices and Apps

Breaking news: Looking at your power bill every month does not cut your electricity consumption! Checking your speedometer does not slow down your car! Tracking your spending does not make you rich!

I’ve been using a sleep tracker (the Oura ring) since December. Neither wearing the ring nor checking the reports I get has increased the amount of sleep I got. However, I have learned a lot about how to get more and better sleep.

Probably the most useful thing I’ve learned is that the standard advice that you should have supper at least three hours before bedtime isn’t sufficient for me: I sleep much better if I finish supper at least four hours before I lie down to go to sleep.

That’s actually a specific example of my larger point: A sleep tracker makes it easy to run little experiments and quickly see the results.

My intuition as to whether I got a good night’s sleep is an excellent guide (as I suspect it is for most people). But even a good intuition isn’t always enough to run a good experiment, and this is an example of that. Although the Oura ring’s report isn’t better than my own intuition, it provided some specific information that led me to that particular insight: On days when I had a late supper, my sleep quality was quite poor for the first couple hours of sleep, a pattern that I didn’t see on days when I had an early supper.

I’ve used it to run other experiments. For example, it appears that I get more deep sleep on days when I have only one drink than on days when I have two. (This is very sad news, and will have to be confirmed by many more experiments before I use it to modify my behavior—but at least I can run the experiments.)

After a rough patch last fall (which is what prompted me to order the Oura ring), I’m actually sleeping pretty well now, so I’m not aggressively running new experiments to try and improve my sleep. I am, however, paying attention when a natural experiment presents itself. For example, we generally sleep with the windows open all summer. Over the next two nights that will probably produce sleeping temperatures in the 70s, whereas over following several nights I’ll get to enjoy sleeping temperatures in the 60s. I know from experience that the cooler temperatures will produce better sleep, but the Oura ring will give me detailed metrics that will let me investigate if there’s an optimal temperature—information that may be very useful in the winter for deciding how to adjust the thermostat.

That’s the value of the ring for me: It lets me run experiments of specific sleep interventions, and gives me results that are more fine-grained than just a general sense as to whether I slept well or not.

Here’s one more natural experiment. I observed decades ago that I need more sleep in the winter than I do in the summer. I can now put a couple of numbers on that.

Here’s my total sleep each day in January and February this year. The report from the Oura ring lets me see that I averaged 7 h 50 min of sleep each night:

Here’s my total sleep each day from June 1st through last night. I can see that I averaged 7 h 03 min of sleep each night:

I’ve perceived each period as being roughly equally good in terms of getting “enough” sleep, so I’m inclined to think of the 47 minute decrease in sleep as being a decrease in the amount of sleep I need when the days are long and sunny and I’m getting plenty of fresh air and exposure to nature. In the winter I need darn near 8 hours of sleep per night. In the summer I can get by fine on just over 7.

That information doesn’t make me sleep better, but it’s still useful (even if it just confirms something I’ve known for a long time).

In other breaking news recently published in the science journal “Duh!”: Stepping on the bathroom scale every morning neither increases your muscle mass nor reduces your fat mass!