Are you one of the millions globally who dread this time of year? Not because of the false merry jingles already blaring from shops stocked with Christmas goodies, or because of the surfeit of talentless 'talent' shows on TV! What I am talking about is a disorder which appears as the days shorten and darken and the weather turns gloomy and cool. S.A.D - 'Seasonal Affective Disorder'.
What is S.A.D – Seasonal Affective Disorder?
According to Medicinenet, S.A.D is a type of winter depression affecting a minimum 4% of adults living mostly in the Northern latitudes. The Cleveland Clinic claims that nearly 10 % of Alaska residents suffer from SAD, while in the USA an additional 10 to 20 % of the population suffers from a milder form of SAD called ‘Winter-onset seasonal affective disorder’ or ‘wintertime blues’.
S.A.D can begin at any age with the average onset age being 23 years old. It appears more common in women than men, though hard proof of that is scarce as men prefer not to openly report to being depressed.
Interestingly, although ‘S.A.D’ as a ‘disorder’ has only been recognised by the medical profession in the last few decades, the phenomena is not new. In fact the ‘father of modern medicine Hippocrates noted that a 'melancholia' occurred when the seasonal light patterns changed.
What are the S.A.D Symptoms?
Perhaps not surprisingly, symptoms typically resemble those of a short term Depression including moodiness, poor focus, sleep difficulties, anxiety, loss of libido, feeling ‘numb’, lethargy, aches and pains, compromised immune system and a tendency to prefer starchy and sugary foods.
How does S.A.D differ from Depression?
Depression is classed as a mental illness which can last anything from 3 months to 30 years. While S.A.D is usually experienced during autumn and winter. People who experience SAD may be otherwise outgoing, optimistic and social individuals in the spring and summertime yet revert into sluggish, retiring types who avoid interaction and are unable to function normally when the colder, darker months arrive.
Generally speaking, S.A.D. is easier to treat successfully than depression because the causes of S.A.D appear to be easier to identify and address.
What exactly causes S.A.D?
The general consensus is that insufficient strong sunlight and Vit D leads to brain chemical imbalances, especially of serotonin and melatonin, which in turn trigger S.A.D symptoms.
This imbalance takes places in the hypothalamus - a section of the brain just behind the eyes. The hypothalamus helps to control the pituitary gland, which in turn controls the thyroid, adrenal glands and sexual organs. The hypothalamus also effects appetite and weight, sleep, body temperature and emotions.
So when the hypothalamus is off whack, ‘Keeping up appearances becomes very hard indeed.
How can S.A.D. be reduced?
As with depression, anti depressants can help in extreme cases. However, regular exposure to strong sunlight, Vit D and a healthy lifestyle tends to have more lasting, effective results.
One of the most popular SAD-busters is to escape on a sun-drenched tropical vacation during the dead of winter. But even though most of us would love to remedy a foul February funk by decamping to Palm Springs for a week, going away is often neither practical nor financially viable.
Some alternative tips to consider are:
1. Let there be light.
A common treatment for SAD is light therapy or phototherapy. During light therapy, sufferers of SAD sit in front of a special light therapy box for around 30 minutes. These boxes mimic natural sunlight, helping to promote a chemical change in the brain ‘lifting’ a ‘down’ mood. Just think of a light therapy box as a tanning bed for the brain (without the harmful side effects).
It appears that narrowband UVB phototherapy is particularly effective in increasing Vit D levels. Note that most people need at least 2,000 to 5,000 IU/day through the winter to keep brain chemistry and neurotransmitter action at optimal levels.
Exercise increases serotonin and endorphin levels and improves metabolism, which in turn helps banish the blues. Exercise outside and you'll get an even greater boost - studies have shown that one-hour of outdoor exercise had the same benefits as 2.5 hours of light treatment indoors.
Deep breathing exercises and meditation are also helpful in combating S.A.D.
3. Mood food
If you’re like me, you may find yourself craving carbs and sweet treats when it gets cooler.
Although calorie-laden comfort foods may improve one’s mood temporarily, they also increase blood sugar spikes and hormonal imbalances. So instead eat nutrient dense foods that naturally help to boost your mood.
Bananas for example help boost levels of serotonin. Fresh fruits, veggies and grass fed animal meat are rich in both the amino acid tryptophan and in vitamin B-12, both crucial players in the production of serotonin.
In addition to a quality multi vitamin and Omega 3 supplement there are other natural nutrients that may help with the treatment of depression. For a list of these and a recommended protocol please see Natural Treatments for Depression, Stress and Anxiety
Finally, transform S.A.D. into happy by trying something new!
Consider cooking classes (or subject your family to new, experimental healthy recipes), volunteer or start crafting. Or how about some DIY, home decoration or clearing out over stuffed cupboards? Use lively colors to brighten both your mood and the general mood around your house!