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Sigh … Seasonal Blues Got You Down?

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Cold weather, gray skies and less hours of sunlight is a familiar shift in reality for those of us living in more northerly climates of the world.  For many, this change of seasons is a welcome reprieve from the heat and interminable sunny days of our long southern Oregon summers. Unfortunately, many people experience just the opposite sense of relief characterized by seasonal depression and increasing fatigue. If you or someone you know has suffered with an extended case of more than just the ‘winter blues’, you should consider the possibility of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

More than just a clever acronym, SAD is a condition that affects four to six percent of people in the United States and contributes to a milder form of general malaise in another ten to twenty percent of the population.  Predominately affecting women more than men and people between 18 and 30 years of age, it is a condition that affects about half a million Americans every year. In some people, overall health, relationships and the ability to cope with work and other commitments can be significantly impacted.

Typical symptoms of SAD include lower energy, sleeping more often and/or longer, social withdrawal, weight gain, inability to concentrate, overeating and carbohydrate craving and mild to moderate depression.  And, while there are no formal tests for this condition, a diagnosis can be made based on a physician examination and exclusion of other possible causes such as low thyroid, blood sugar irregularities, and numerous chronic and acute viral infections.  

Though we do not know the exact cause of SAD, we do know that the lack of sunlight emitted during the winter months is a common factor.  This lack of sunlight may impact a part of our brain known as the hypothalamus from functioning properly. As a result, our circadian clock gets disrupted and we experience an overproduction of the sleep-inducing neurotransmitter melatonin and a simultaneous reduction in our happiness associated neurotransmitter, serotonin. Armed with this information, there are a number of (non-caffeinated) natural therapies that can help you to weather the gloom of the season!  

Working in about eighty percent of cases, light therapy remains the mainstay of treatment for SAD.  Best done in the morning soon after waking, exposing oneself to 30 minutes of bright full-spectrum light at an intensity of 10,000 lux can correct imbalances in brain chemistry and relieve symptoms in a few days up to a few weeks.  Since the FDA does not test, approve or regulate these light box devices, it is best to thoroughly research any product you may be considering. The Center for Environmental Therapeutics (www.cet.org) provides useful information on the criteria for selecting and purchasing a light box.

Another very important consideration is the “sunshine” vitamin.  A deficiency that affects almost 50% of the population worldwide, research support a connection between low vitamin D levels and SAD.  Doses of 2000IU per day, or more under the recommendation of a physician, can be very helpful for many people. Food sources include cold water fish such as cod, sardines, salmon and herring as well as fortified cereals and milks.  

Other nutrients that can be helpful for people suffering with SAD include B complex with active folate and vitamin B6, St. John’s Wort (Do not use this herb if you are taking anti-retrovirals, birth control or antidepressant medications), SAMe, fish oil and the amino acids 5-HTP and L-tryptophan.  

Not to be understated, physical exercise, daily routines and structured activities are all things that help to boost our mood and keep us connected to the outside world.  A healthy low inflammatory diet and a regular bedtime routine will also combat the negative effects of seasonal change. Journaling, playing (or learning) an instrument and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) have also been shown to provide benefit.  If symptoms are severe, anti-depressant medications should be considered under the guidance of a physician.

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