The SAD Season is here again
4 things to do starting now to prevent and treat seasonal affective disorder without moving to the tropics.
By Nevine Shazli
Previously published November 20, 2016
According to an article published in the Psychiatry MMC journal, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is “characterized by fall/winter major depression with spring/summer remission” and “is a prevalent mental health problem”. The cause? “SAD etiology is not certain, but available models focus on neurotransmitters, hormones, circadian rhythm dysregulation, genetic polymorphisms, and psychological factors.”
It boils down to this: when Fall turns into Winter, we get ‘sad’ and feel better in the Spring. It seems almost funny to me that this is an actual condition. In my opinion, as someone who used to suffer from this ‘condition’ (and still does get the winter blues in the dead of winter, after the holidays), it’s very simple; the days get shorter in terms of daylight, our outdoor and fresh air time is limited because of weather and we counter-intuitively fight the natural instinct to sleep more and retreat by remaining as active as during the Spring and Summer.
Is it preventable, or are we doomed to curse the season every year of our lives for as long we live in this northern hemisphere? Do we really have to go on anti-depressants every winter? For those who are prone to depressive and anxiety disorders, medication might be the best solution. But other approaches are worth trying first, and I’ve tried all of these, with success.
…we counter-intuitively fight the natural instinct to sleep more and retreat by remaining as active as during the Spring and Summer.
1 – Light Therapy
“The photon-count hypothesis suggests that shorter photoperiods (hours of daylight) and/or less intense light in the winter results in an insufficient dose of light (i.e., fewer photons) to the retina in SAD-vulnerable individuals.18 A prospective, longitudinal study found a positive correlation between depression severity and photoperiod and two measures of light intensity (minutes of sunshine and global radiation) in SAD patients”.
Bottom line? Less sunlight makes us prone to depression. You can find a good and affordable sun lamp in your favourite big box store or online. Fifteen minutes/day in the morning will do the trick. Without looking directly at the light, have it on your kitchen counter or dining room table while you have breakfast. As long as it’s in your peripheral vision, you’re experiencing benefits.
And what about that big yellow thing in the sky? It is still the best source of light therapy, so every day it shines, get outside and soak it up. Whether it’s 5 minutes during your lunch break or sitting in your car (window down; don’t waste that precious light by blocking it with glass), it will make a difference. Eyes opened so the light hits the retinas!
‘And what about that big yellow thing in the sky? It is still the best source of light therapy, so every day it shines, get outside and soak it up.’
2 – Supplements and Nutrition
The year I started taking Vitamin D3, things shifted noticeably. We all know that vitamin D is the product of sunlight, and we all need it for good health. It doesn’t matter if you believe the sun is a dangerous cancer-producing machine (while I know sun-baking is unhealthy, I don’t subscribe to this belief), your body still needs it. Vitamin D absorption requires the vehicle of a fat, so add to that a supplement of Omega 3’s, which by themselves have huge mood benefits.
Good fats are also necessary for staying “oiled up” and insulated against the cold. Just like our car needs oil to run, so do we, even more so when the weather has a drying effect on our body. Healthy fats such as Omega 3’s, avocado, nuts, cold-pressed virgin olive oil, coconut oil and other high quality oils, as well as butter (yes, butter is back! Organic is better) will protect both your body and mind against the harshness of the season.
Please don’t worry about weight gain; it’s the sugary, refined and processed meals and treats that are to blame for that, not the healthy fats. In fact, sugary foods can increase the symptoms of SAD due to their energy-depleting effects known as ‘crashing’. Natural anti-depressant supplements that can also help include St-John’s Wort and 5-HTP.
‘Healthy fats… will protect both your body and mind against the harshness of the season.’
3 – Sleep
“Individuals with SAD may respond to longer nights in winter with an extended duration of nocturnal melatonin release, a hormone that can promote sleep.21 When measuring active melatonin secretion under constant dim light, Wehr, et al.21, found that individuals with SAD had a longer duration of melatonin release during winter than summer whereas controls did not. This is analogous to the lengthened duration of melatonin release in some mammals that signals seasonal changes in reproductive activity.21 It is possible that only humans with SAD have retained the ability to track seasons in this way, which might explain the seasonal presentation of SAD.”
All this is to say that we need more sleep during this season! Do bears and other mammals not hibernate? Yet here we are still running around like mad trying to keep up with everything. If our bodies have a prolonged melatonin-release period during this time of the year, does this not mean that the body wants and needs more sleep? Yes! We are mammals and if we followed our natural rhythms we would sleep soon after sunset and wake soon after sunrise. And we would take naps, as all animals do.
I know that this is unrealistic and even impossible, hence the light therapy, supplements and other tools. But there are things we can do: go to bed earlier, reduce our activity by avoiding constant nightly outings/classes/parties, and turn inward by engaging in quiet, soothing activities.
This does not mean being a recluse, but reducing the amount of stimulation you’re forcing on yourself. It’s ok if you get home and don’t feel like heading out again because it’s already dark; don’t go out, and be ok hanging out in your pj’s watching Netflix. On weekends, gather with family and friends in someone’s home, light some candles or make a fire and practice hygge, a term used by the Danish to describe this huddling-type of solution to winter.
More on hygge, check out this blog post written last winter post-holidays.
‘… there are things we can do: go to bed earlier, reduce our activity… and turn inward by engaging in quiet, soothing activities.’
4 – Ayurveda
I mention this ancient form of Indian medicine because it saved me and has been the most important factor in helping me deal with SAD. During the Fall and Winter seasons, the element of air (Vata) is predominant. It’s a cold element and when it is in excess, it creates an imbalance. To balance Vata, eat warm foods (soups and stews, for example). Never eat anything straight out of the fridge, no ice-cold drinks, and nothing raw (as little as possible). Sip on warm water (with ginger for extra heat) throughout the day.
Finally, use a high-quality cold-pressed sesame oil (not the kind you use for Chinese cooking) to ground your body by giving yourself warm-oil massages. This technique, referred to as Abhyanga, literally takes the cold out of your bones and immediately soothes, comforts and balances the Vata body-mind. You can even rub a drop of the warmed oil on the inside of the nostril and ears to pacify even the brain.
‘… use a high-quality cold-pressed sesame oil … to ground your body by giving yourself warm-oil massages.’
You don’t have to feel SAD during this season, dear friend. Take charge and see that you can do something about the way you feel. And during those days where you just feel blue, tired and ‘blah’ and nothing helps, accept that it is that way. Don’t fight it and relax into the feeling, knowing it will pass, as does everything. See you in Spring (just kidding).
Nevine Shazli is a certified Strategic Intervention Life Coach. Having graduated from the Robbins-Madanes Training (RMT) program, she uses Strategic Intervention Life Coaching with individuals who need help with relationships, personal growth and development, and general life challenges. She is a certified ThetaHealer® and uses the ThetaHealing® technique as an integral part of her life coaching services. Nevine graduated from the McGill University School of Physical and Occupational Therapy in 1997 and has since worked in health care as an Occupational Therapist. She is a certified yoga teacher and Reiki Master practitioner.