Ask the Doctor: Sleeping Too Much; Seasonal Affective Disorder; Essential Amino Acids

Q: I’ve read plenty about how too little sleep can be bad for your health, but what about sleeping too much?

A: If you have trouble sleeping, the idea of logging 10 or 11 hours of sleep a night might seem like, well, a dream come true. But sleeping too much can signal a serious health problem.

In general, a good night’s sleep is between seven and nine hours. If you find that you’re sleeping 10 hours or more a night, tell your doctor or just go straight to a sleep specialist.

Oversleeping could be a sign of hypersomnia, a medical condition that causes sleepiness during the day and the need for increased sleep at night. A sleep disorder, such as obstructive sleep apnea, can leave you feeling like you need to sleep more. And a mood disorder, such as depression, can also cause you to sleep either more or less than usual.

If you find that you are sleeping more than nine hours a night, tell your doctor, especially if you are also feeling tired during the day.

Q: I think I have seasonal affective disorder, and it seems to take over every winter. Can it really be treated or do I have to just wait it out?

A: Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which affects anywhere between 5 and 20 percent of the population to some degree, can often be treated quite effectively. SAD can leave you feeling depressed and sluggish, while also causing changes in your sleep, appetite and ability to concentrate. There are three main treatment options for SAD: psychotherapy, medication, and light therapy.

Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, can help you identify and then change negative thoughts and behaviors that make you feel worse at this time of year. You can also learn ways to reduce your stress.

Medications for SAD include antidepressants. They are usually reserved for people with severe symptoms. An extended-release version of the antidepressant bupropion (Wellbutrin XL®, Aplenzin®) may help prevent depressive episodes if you have a history of SAD. Other antidepressants may also be effective. But, keep in mind that these medications can take a few weeks to become effective. The drugs also have side effects, so be sure to discuss with your doctor the risks and benefits of medications for your condition.

Light therapy is often the first-line treatment for SAD. Also known as phototherapy, light therapy is done by having you sit near a special box that emits a bright light. The light mimics natural outdoor light, which can help trigger the release of brain chemicals linked to a happier mood.

To better combat SAD, start by talking about your symptoms with your doctor or mental health professional.

Q: What are “essential amino acids,” and are they important for brain health?

A: Amino acids are compounds that form proteins. There are three main groups of amino acids: essential, nonessential, and conditional. Nonessential amino acids are made by the body, but you can also get some of them from food. Essential amino acids aren’t made by the body. You must get them from your diet. Conditional amino acids are considered essential at certain times only, such as during an illness or stressful episode.

Amino acids are very important for the health of your brain and your entire nervous system. They help build neurons (nerve cells) and neurotransmitters, which are chemicals that help carry nerve impulses from one nerve fiber to another or to muscle fiber.

You can get essential amino acids from poultry and seafood, plant-based proteins, eggs and dairy, and lean red meat—though red meat should be consumed in small quantities if at all. Working with a nutritionist may help.

–Editor-in-Chief Maurizio Fava, MD

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