Early autumn here in Minnesota is perfect. It’s still warm, but the humidity is gone, and we’re blessed with crisp, sunny days that are ideal for playing outdoors. The sky is cobalt blue and there is just a hint of the color to come on the trees lining the lakes, rivers, and streams. It’s an ideal time to live here. It’s interesting though, that during those early days of fall I begin seeing patients in my acupuncture practice who are already struggling with the coming winter. The weather is fine, and there’s plenty of light early in the morning and into the evening hours, but these people are already feeling the beginnings of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Seasonal affective disorder is a mood disorder that affects people most frequently in the fall and winter and lasting until spring. Symptoms include depression, fatigue, headache, irritability, food cravings, and lethargy. It affects about six percent of the US population, with another fourteen percent of people having a milder form of the “winter blues”. An estimated 60-70 percent of people who struggle with SAD are women.
While many people believe that seasonal affective disorder is related to the cold, the reality is that it’s more associated with daylight. The lack of sunlight increases your body’s production of melatonin, a hormone that is secreted during the dark which causes drowsiness and regulates sleep. Unfortunately, melatonin can also be related to depression.
From the viewpoint of Chinese medicine, we are strongly influenced by our environment, and the changing of the seasons is no exception. We become active and exuberant in the spring and summer and begin to slow down in the fall. We are meant to hunker down and stay warm during the winter. The excess production of melatonin may be nature’s way of suggesting that we, ahem…hibernate during the winter months.
So why do some people struggle with SAD and others don’t? It may be related to the dichotomy between Yin and Yang. Yang is warm, bright, and active, much like a summer’s day. In contrast, Yin is cool, quiet, dark, and nourishing–a description of what we feel like doing during the coldest days of winter. For those people who tend to have a body constitution that is more Yin in nature, the cold and darkness of the winter months can be overwhelming.
Chinese medicine has a lot to offer someone who is dealing with seasonal affective disorder. Acupuncture, combined with Chinese herbs, food therapy, balancing sleep cycles, and other lifestyle modifications is a first line of defense for many, especially those people who choose not to take medications. Good self-care can also be extremely helpful. If you suffer from SAD, some steps that could help include:
-Get as much exposure to natural daylight as you can, especially early in the day. Keep your blinds and curtains open during the daylight hours,and when you can, work near a window. And while it may feel like the last thing you want to do, get up early in the morning in order to get as much daylight as possible.
-In addition to natural daylight, some people are greatly helped by exposure to full spectrum lights, which are lights that simulate natural daylight. There are lots of full spectrum options from light boxes to light visors, and dawn simulator–lamps that come on in the early morning and gradually get lighter simulating sunrise. If you use a light box, use it daily during the winter, and be sure to use it facing the light with your eyes open to get the full benefit.
-Get enough Vitamin D. Research suggests a link between depleted Vitamin D and seasonal affective disorder. Dubbed the sunlight vitamin, D is produced in your body from exposure to sunlight directly on your skin. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to get enough D in the northern climates during the winter. So supplement with 1,000 to 2,000 units daily of Vitamin D in the form of D3.
-Take really good care of yourself. Remember, if you had a friend or loved one who was struggling with their health, you would want to take good care of them, so do the same for yourself. Get enough sleep, eat well (ditch the sugar-laden pastries and desserts and eat enough protein), and get a little exercise.
-Go outside and play. Spending time outdoors increases your exposure to natural light, and if you can combine your outdoor time with an enjoyable activity, even better. In addition, there are benefits to spending time in the woods, even in the winter. Researchers in Japan have documented that walking in the forest can decrease stress, lower blood pressure, and improve mood. So get outside, even if it means bundling up and strapping on show shoes!
-Finally, if your symptoms are severe, get help from a mental health professional. Talk therapy, stress management strategies, behavioral therapy, and even medications can help when necessary.
Remember it’s our natural inclination to want to slow down, stay warm, and put on a few pounds to get through the cold and dark days of winter. Some people love winter and sail through without a second thought. However, if you’re one of those people for whom winter feels like a bleak, dark, endless tunnel, take extra good care of yourself and remember spring is only a few months away.