Got the Winter Blahs?
You're not alone. "Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) affects people when the days become shorter and can also vary with the weather if it's more or less cloudy," says John Hibbs, ND, clinical faculty member at Bastyr Center for Natural Health. Common symptoms include feeling blue, lethargic, fatigued, unmotivated and depressed. You may also oversleep, gain weight and crave carbohydrates more than usual. Fortunately, natural methods such as light therapy, nutrition, supplementation, acupuncture and herbs can help you feel like yourself again.
Since lack of exposure to sunlight seems to be a key cause of SAD, light therapy can make a big difference in your mood. A combination of a full spectrum light box and dawn simulator work best, says Dr. Hibbs. "With a light box you can sit at a table, read and spend the prescribed amount of time getting lots of exposure into your pineal gland." This stimulates serotonin, melatonin and vitamin D production, which are all essential to well being. A dawn simulator is timed and progressive, so light slowly brightens over a programmed period of time. "Between opaque blinds and a dawn simulator, you can decide to, say, have dawn in your life every day at 6:30. And your body gets used to that," says Hibbs. This works well for those who have trouble adjusting to the time change in winter, says Hibbs. "They're happier, more interested in life and doing things."
Eating a nutritional diet
"SAD is about not getting enough light, but it's also about not getting enough omega-3 fatty acids, " says nutritionist Jim Gallagher, MS, RD. Omega-3 fatty acids are important for optimum brain function. "When people eat enough omega-3s, they think more clearly." Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids (and vitamin D) include cod liver oil, salmon, mackerel, nuts and seeds. Cold water fish is also high in vitamins A and B, which are key nutrients.
For a healthful diet, aim for variety, says Gallagher. "Make sure you have a good balance of carbohydrates, proteins and fats in each one of your meals." An example of an ideal dinner would be a 3-oz. piece of wild salmon, brown rice and a dark green leafy vegetable such as spinach, which is packed with folic acid. B6 and B12 are also very important when it comes to mental health. You can find them in whole grain products. Dr. Hibbs explains, "The brain needs these nutrients for normal neurotransmitter functioning." It's best to avoid processed foods, too much caffeine and too many carbohydrates, but to make sure you include foods high in tryptophans such as legumes, quinoa, soybeans and nutritional yeast. People with SAD tend to be tryprophan-deficient.
It's also important to keep your blood sugar stable. "To maintain normal blood sugar, eat small but frequent meals every two to three hours. A small snack, such as fruit, is always a good choice, or a meal," says Gallagher. "Drink six to eight glasses of water a day to ensure adequate hydration, make sure you exercise and get out in the sun as much as possible."
Taking the right supplements
Supplementing with vitamin D can help alleviate SAD, as well. "Low blood levels of vitamin D correlate with a higher incidence of winter time depression," says Dr. Hibbs. "Patients with SAD and low blood levels of vitamin D who supplement with vitamin D have significant improvement in their symptoms of depression." Make sure you take the recommended RDA of Vitamin D, which is 400 IU.
Taking melatonin before bed can help those with SAD who have trouble sleeping. "Small amounts are quite safe," says Dr. Hibbs. "It's typical to start out taking between 1-3 milligrams. If you feel too groggy, reduce your dose. You'll feel and sleep better."
St. John's wort can also help alleviate the symptoms of SAD, says Dr. Hibbs. If you sense that your SAD is really depression, though, see a mental health professional. "If I talk to people and they think that in addition to SAD, there are things troubling them, I might refer them to a counseling provider or psychologist for further assessment."
The benefits of Chinese medicine
Chinese medicine incorporates a holistic approach that can benefit those with SAD as well. "We treat a pattern of disharmony, and each pattern is unique, so we individualize treatment for SAD depending on what's wrong," says Steve Given, LAc, clinical faculty member in acupuncture and Oriental medicine. Our goal is to restore the balance between the organs, balance the yin and yang and get the qi (or energy) flow going. Tai chi, Qi gong and yoga are all practices that restore the proper movement of qi. A licensed acupuncturist with training and experience in Chinese herbs can also prescribe a combination of acupuncture and herbs to ease the symptoms of SAD and boost your mood.
Writer: Chrystle Fiedler, who writes about alternative medicine and is a regular contributor to Woman's Day, Prevention and Energy Times.
Contributors: John Hibbs, ND; Steve Given, LAc; Jim Gallagher, RD
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