Surviving Darkness in Tallinn

Long dark winter nights can take a toll on everybody, whether it is difficulty waking up or a wave of winter blues. Some people even develop what’s called seasonal affective disorder, also known as seasonal depression (or SAD). Some symptoms of SAD include sadness, lack of energy throughout the day, craving for sweets, and sleeping problems. SAD develops as a new season comes and eventually goes away after the said season ends.

Typically, SAD occurs during winter, which might be due to shorter days. In Estonia, there can be as few as 6 hours of daylight in late December. Coming from Seattle, I’ve grown accustomed to gloomy grey days and little sunlight, but even for me the transition to what seems like eternal darkness has not been easy. The lack of daylight, combined with the stress of finals approaching, can be quite a challenge to handle. That’s why I’ve decided to compile a list of suggestions that might be helpful in keeping the winter blues at bay.

1. Healthy Diet

You’ll be tempted to stockpile on chocolate bars, cookies, and some tea or hot chocolate (or both). While there’s no need to eliminate all the sweets and munchies from the diet ( moderate consumption of dark chocolate may increase serotonin levels and decrease the symptoms of chronic fatigue; check out this article), it’s best not to act upon you sugar cravings too much. Instead, make sure to incorporate plenty of vegetables and fruit into your diet, drink plenty of water, and cut down on foods which contain plenty of sugar and trans fats.

2. Vitamins and Supplements

Vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) have been found to reduce one’s chances of succumbing to seasonal depression. Particularly, one study focused on abnormally low ratio of SAD prevalence among Icelanders, which can be linked to a high yearly consumption of fish.

Fatty fish contain plenty of vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids. All three have been shown to be involved in the synthesis of a neurotransmitter serotonin, a chemical in human brain which, if deficient, is believed to play a role in depression. While there’s no direct significant effects of neither vitamin D nor DHA intake on treating the symptoms of seasonal depression, these chemicals have been shown to somewhat reduce the negative symptoms of depression, as well as have other unrelated positive effects.

Vitamin D is synthesized when skin is exposed to direct sunlight, but it can be also obtained from eating certain foods, such as beef liver, egg yolks, cheese, and vitamin D-fortified foods like orange juice, regular and soy milk, as well as above mentioned fatty fish. In Estonia, vitamin D is typically added to milk. Look for the “D + “ label on the packet.

Omega-3-fatty acids can be found in yogurt, eggs, milk, and flax seeds. Significant amounts of DHA can be only obtained from animal products, such as beef brains and fatty fish like salmon and tuna. If you’re looking to buy a supplement and have no dietary restrictions, fish oil works best, as it contains the above-mentioned chemicals. If, however, you happen to be vegetarian or vegan, algae-based DHA supplements are also available in stores.

Speaking of which, most major pharmacies (called “apteek” in Estonian) in central parts of Tallinn have English-speaking staff that will be able to assist you with reading the labels, which are typically in Estonian. You can also grab your Estonian-speaking friend along with you for extra reassurance, as translating Estonian using online tools, especially without any knowledge of Estonian grammar, can be quite a challenge.

Keep in mind that consuming too much vitamin D or DHA can have side effects. For instance, people who take high blood pressure medicine should be extra cautious with DHA, as it is known to lower blood pressure. If you have any concerns, please do not hesitate to consult with your doctor.

3. Staying Active

… which includes exercising, of course. 30-minute moderate to high intensity exercising has been shown to give people a sense of euphoria, also known as “runner’s high” caused by an increased release of endorphins in brain. Not a fan of gyms or jogging in the rain? Then yoga is the way to go! Alternatively, you can try rock-climbing, swimming and relaxing at a spa center, or ice-skating.

Being active also means not turning into a couch potato binging on that new British thriller. Joining a club, which there are plenty in TalTech. Also, check out meetups that are happening in Tallinn on meetup.com.

4. Good Sleep Hygiene

Maintaining a stable sleep regime can be tricky when juggling classes, homework, and, for some, work. Lack of sleep is stressful for the body, and prolonged stress is known to reduce the function of immune system. Excessive stress may also contribute to the development of SAD.

There are a few useful guidelines to keep a good sleep hygiene. Apart from having a stable sleep schedule, it is also good to remember that bed is for sleep and cuddling. It is best not to watch movies or study on your bed. Otherwise, your body will associate being in bed with activities that keep you awake instead of with the time to rest. Also, do not stay in bed when you cannot fall asleep for more than 20 minutes; instead, get up and do something monotonous or boring. I found that reading a page of anything Nietzsche does the trick for me. But whatever you do, avoid spending time on your computer or your cell phone. LED screens emit a significant amount of blue light, which brain associates with the daylight and thus stays awake. And lastly, avoid drinking anything with caffeine late in the day, including coffee, black tea and even green tea. Instead, have a cup of calming herbal tea like mint or chamomile.

If you do have problems with your circadian rhythms, there’s a special type of lamps that emit extra blue light and can help with reducing SAD symptoms and normalizing sleep patterns. It is recommended that one should have an indirect exposure to such light (say, having the lamp turned on placed on the side of the table while studying) for about 20 minutes to an hour every day. This might not be a convenient solution for everybody. Also, bare in mind that you have to consult with your doctor before starting light therapy as there might adverse side effects, including severe worsening of depressions symptoms.

Remember that seasonal affective disorder has to be taken seriously. If you feel like you need some help, there are counselors available on TalTech campus to assist you with issues related to cultural shock, homesickness, feelings of isolation, and other issues. For more information, check out our university’s psychological counseling page.

P.S. Bare in mind that I am neither a medical nor a mental health care professional, and if you require any medical assistance, contact your doctor or a 24/7 advisory line by calling 1220 (available only in Estonian and Russian). You can find more information about it on TalTech’s healthcare page.