It is early November and the exhilarating colors of autumn are falling away with the leaves. For many of my patients, the desire to get outside and “take it all in” is also starting to give way to dreams of hibernation.
By nature, we all slow down during the winter months. According to Chinese Medicine, it is the Yin -or- still a time of the year whereas summer is considered more Yang and active. This slowing down can sometimes feel like being down and we are generally less enthusiastic. For some people, however, the natural withdrawal of winter can go a step further and lead to an incapacitating depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder and Who Gets It?
SAD is a condition that affects people all over the world. Considered a form of depression, the list of associated symptoms is broad and can include everything from mood swings to changes in eating habits to diminished libido. It appears to occur more at higher latitudes where the seasonal shift in daylight is more dramatic. Typically, SAD is associated with the winter months and while there is a good reason for that, it can also happen during the summer. Women* tend to suffer from SAD more commonly than men* but it can also affect teens and children. In all, while about 20% of the population has some form of Winter Blues and Cabin Fever, roughly 6% of us really suffer.
Why does it Happen?
Seasonal Affective Disorder is closely linked to low levels of serotonin in the brain which change with exposure to the sun. This lack of regular sunlight exposure is at the core of the syndrome; so much so that “lightboxes” are commonly used to make up for it. Here at the Yinova Center, we see a fair amount of SAD and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a very effective way to help treat it. According to the principles of TCM, this disorder arises from two conditions.
First, the Yin nature of the winter slows everything down. As busy lives continue though, it is easy to become exhausted. By supporting Yang energy, we can restore a healthy balance both physically and mentally.
Another reason for Seasonal Affective Disorder is the difficultly our circadian rhythm has making the transition to the different daylight schedule. This stagnation of our body-clock causes an almost jetlag effect and results in a variety of symptoms associated with SAD. TCM can be a very effective tool for tapping into the body’s hormonal regulatory system and helping with this as well.
These two patterns are not mutually exclusive and some people have predisposing factors that make them particularly vulnerable to this disorder. This is why individualized care is so important.
While Acupuncture and Chinese herbs can be of great benefit, we always encourage our patients to take matters into their own hands with personal lifestyle steps. Small across the board changes can make a big difference in how you feel during the shortened days of the season. Here are the tips we give patients for getting through the winter.
Any health program is supported by a good diet. With Seasonal Affective Disorder, one may crave carbohydrates in the form of starches and sweets. These tasty bits raise your blood sugar quickly, but then comes the crash, fatigue, and mood swings. If needed, eat foods made from whole grains instead of white flour. Add proteins such as nuts, fish meats, and small amounts of fats. Eat lots of dark leafy greens too!
Here are 6 nutrients that can also help ward off seasonal depression:
- Vitamin D3 Your body produces Vitamin D from sunlight exposure, so supplementing it during winter months is a bit of a no-brainer. Also, research has shown it to be helpful for general immune support and reducing your risk for everything from canker sores to cancer. Vitamin D is in fish and dairy products as well as fortified cereals and soy. While it is available in whole foods, this is the exception to the rule where I tend to recommend supplementation, especially this time of year.
- Omega-3 is also an essential fatty acid. Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in fish, such as salmon & tuna, other seafood including algae and krill, some plants, and nut oils. Among other uses, Omega-3 EFAs act to support brain function and stabilize the mood.
- Vitamin B6 helps with stress response, nervousness, and insomnia. Good sources include cereals, beans, meat and poultry, fish, bananas, and nuts.
- Magnesium balances blood sugar levels. Foods containing magnesium include nuts, spinach, oatmeal, dark chocolate, and whole-grain loaves of bread. You can also add Magnesium Citrate or Magnesium Glycinate to your daily routine.
- L-tyrosine is an amino acid affecting many neurotransmitters that regulate emotions. This nutrient may help alleviate SAD symptoms such as anxiety, irritability, stress, and frustration. find L-tyrosine in meats, dairy products, fish, whole grain, and oats.
- Vitamin B9 (folic acid) helps your body convert food into energy and a high percentage of depression sufferers have low levels. Foods containing folic acid include spinach, dark leafy greens, soybeans, kidney beans, white beans, lima beans, mung beans, salmon, orange juice, avocado, and whole grains and fortified cereals.
Bundle up and get a bit of exercise outdoors. Try to create a daily routine for yourself that is based on when it is light outside. This will increase your sun exposure while getting your Qi moving. Any kind of aerobic exercise though will help to increase dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps stabilize mood. Vigorous 20-minute walks in the sunlight can make a big difference. But for when you cannot get out, do it indoors. Try Tai Chi or Yoga to promote healthy circulation, reduce stress, and help with those chippy mood swings.
Get a buddy too! Or join a team. You don’t have to do it alone. This will help with everything from motivation to feeling socially connected. You could also try something new to make it more interesting. Find the nearest trapeze school!
Lastly, while we usually preach the gospel of a low-impact aerobic workout, a reasonable, high-intensity weight training session once a week can give you a life-affirming shot of adrenalin, testosterone, and serotonin. The immediate impact on your shape also ensures that your self-image stays as high as possible, and helps keep the blues at bay.
These recommendations are good for everyone. But for those of us who really suffer, these steps can make all the difference. As with many health concerns, a range of small lifestyle modifications is the way to make meaningful change.
* Language used in the study referenced.