Beat Winter Depression this Season: Tips to prepare for the Fall Time Change
by Melissa Gallagher
(St. Petersburg, FL )
Sunshine in a Box
It’s that time of the year—the days are getting a little shorter, the mornings are crisper and the leaves are in the midst of beautiful, colorful changes. The time change is just around the corner and as Northern residents, this season is invigorating yet marks the passage to darker, drearier and much colder days. The ending of Daylight Savings time and the falling back of the clocks yield darker mornings, early evenings and more time indoors.
When the weather is sunny and bright people tend to feel more upbeat and positive. When the weather is gloomy, cold and dismal, moods tend to slump and often people feel a little down. However, for certain individuals these mood shifts develop into a type of depression that accompanies seasonal changes and affects their ability to function normally. Recurrent episodes of clinical depression that surface during seasonal changes, particularly winter, are referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Native New Yorkers and Southern transplants suffer from varying forms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), commonly known as winter depression. The statistics are alarming and more than likely, if you are reading this you may experience symptoms that become noticeable at the onset of fall; feelings of mild depression, seasonal weight gain, listlessness, the inability to wake up in the morning, a decrease in libido and premature bone loss. One in five northern residents suffer from SAD. Even more difficult, one if four, Fibromyalgia sufferers experience SAD symptoms. Over 20 million Americans experience varying levels of winter depression and more than 10% of these individuals live right here in the Northeast.
Lack of adequate light impacts the body in a unique way. The body becomes deficient in Vitamin D and Serotonin levels reach their lowest point during December and January. Individuals living at latitudes above the 40 degree mark are more prone to these deficiencies.
The root source of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a chemical imbalance in the brain, particularly within the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is the part of the brain that governs the primary functions of the body such as appetite, temperature, sleep, sex drive, mood and activities. The hypothalamus is stimulated by natural light entering the eye and striking the retina. When the days are short and sunlight is reduced, the hypothalamus has to adjust its response to the various body mechanisms, slowing down these functions.
In the fall and winter months the brain produces more melatonin than serotonin and the production of Vitamin D slumps with the lack of exposure to the sun. Serotonin reaches its lowest levels in December and January. The Winter Equinox often marks the lowest period for SAD sufferers. Melatonin is the regulatory chemical that adjusts sleep patterns and in an abundant state induces melancholy feelings, an inability to get out of bed in the dark mornings and increases in carb cravings. The chemical imbalances that accompany shorter days instill a sense of foreboding, unease and mild depression that is often hard to shake. The lack of natural sunshine in the fall and winter months inhibits the production of the happy chemical, serotonin.
It can be very hard for New Yorkers and their doctors to recognize the patterns of seasonal depression. Very often Seasonal Affective Disorder is difficult to diagnose because the symptoms presented are so similar to other types of depression. It is sometimes misdiagnosed as a physical condition such as hypoglycemia, hypothyroidism, infectious mononucleosis, and other viral infections. A great way to help identify potential patterns of winter depression is to take conduct what I call a Seasonal Assessment Audit:
With shorter days of fall and winter do you feel:
- Gain weight?
- Have a hard time focusing?
- Loss of Energy?
- Social Withdrawal?
- Loss of interest in usual activities?
By answering yes to 6 or more of these questions may indicate you are experiencing a degree of Seasonal Affective Disorder. This disorder impacts people differently. Sometimes individuals may feel the worst during the beginning of fall, others will feel particularly terrible in December when the days are their darkest while others most depressed at the beginning
of March. It is important to note that SAD is not confined to the fall and winter months; a small percentage of individuals will also experience symptoms during the summer months as their body has a hard time adjusting to longer, lighter days. It is best to work with your physician or holistic practitioner to identify and determine the most appropriate methods of treatment. The pure statistics of New Englanders who suffer may actually be greater with the increased awareness and acceptance of this common and challenging diagnosis.
This Audit will also help determine seasonal changes in:
- Sleep patterns
- Weight changes
- Energy levels
- Mood changes
- Social activity
Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder associated with depression can affect daily living and should not be ignored. If you are wondering how to beat seasonal depression; treatment options include conventional therapy, psychotherapy, light therapy, natural therapy or a combination of these approaches. Conventional drugs for the treatment of SAD include antidepressant medication such as Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil or Celexa. While these may be beneficial in the short term, many long term effects are unknown. Counseling and cognitive-behavioral therapy can be very helpful and provide support during the difficult months as well as help with lifestyle changes.
One of the greatest remedies for individuals who suffer from winter blues or SAD is the use of light therapy. Full Spectrum light lamps or “happy lamps” emit natural light similar to that from the sun minus the harmful UVA and UVB rays that are linked to skin cancer, advancing skin aging, skin spots and even potential damage to our eyes. I have a deep affinity to these “happy lamps” as I routinely used a large Light Therapy box to help combat the affects of winter depression.
These light therapy lamps are also extremely useful for individuals who suffer from skin cancer, breast cancer and osteoporosis. Full spectrum light allows the body to product Vitamin D naturally and its deficiency is now linked with increased to osteoporosis and breast cancer; both of which have higher incidences in the Northern parts of the US. Similarly skin cancer patients can get the benefits of the sun without harmful exposure to cancer causing rays. Varying color tints like blue light therapy or narrow spectrum light is used to treat insomnia naturally, without pharmaceutical drugs in a side effect free manner. Blue and red lights are now being used in skin care practices to treat acne by soothing the skin and activating the antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties of the skin that reduces breakouts and promotes healing.
Often SAD sufferers find changes in diet, exercise and supplementation to be equally effective in combating SAD and minimizing its symptoms. A low fat, low carb diet that is rich in leafy greens and lean proteins is helpful. Moderate daily exercise has been helpful in increasing energy and regulating sleep patterns. Supplementation with Vitamin D, a B Complex and 5-HTP are helpful. 5-HTP acts as a precursor to serotonin and will help balance the levels of serotonin and melatonin.
There are a number of natural and holistic remedies that are better suited for the body than conventional medicine and can provide an answer on how to beat seasonal depression. Herbal and homeopathic remedies can provide harmony in the body to better balance your moods and feelings without the side effects and potential for dependency associated with the synthetic drugs. One very popular and effective approach is the use of aromatherapy. Essential oils of lemon, grapefruit and geranium are well known for their anti-depressant properties and may be introduced into the environment by means of oil diffusers, space sprays, in a bath oil or during massage.
Darker, shorter days can now represent a consistent flow of happiness and contentment. With slight changes in diet, exercise, supplementation and the addition of light therapy equilibrium is around the corner.
*Melissa Gallagher is a naturopath and founder of Healing Being, LLC, offering a complete line of organic, homeopathic, naturopathic and alternative health and wellness products including Sunshine in a Box, a natural SAD relief kit that was recently featured on CNN Accent Health News. For information call 727-954-8968.