Diving Deep with Seasonal Affective Disorder

Do you look forward to darker days as an excuse to buy another scented candle, so you can light them throughout your house for a vintage eighteenth-century ambiance? Perhaps earlier evenings in colder temperatures allow you to snuggle up to your fireplace or woodburning stove. Maybe you can now find time to do indoor activities like baking, reading, or knitting. 

Or do you dread the long hours of darkness? Do they make you feel tired, sluggish, or negative? This time of year can herald a return of cherished hobbies for some, while for others longer days without daylight can lead to unwanted moods and energy dips. 

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Unlike Helios, the handsome Greek God who drove a golden chariot (i.e. the Sun) across the sky each day, you cannot control when the sun rises and sets. So as winter approaches and longer days advance across northern hemispheres, shorter daylight hours can sometimes create biochemical disruptions in the brain, leading to imbalances in your circadian rhythm or your biological clock which can cause a whole host of symptoms including: 

  • Feeling sad or depressed
  • Loss of interest in your favorite activities
  • Craving carbs or changes in your appetite
  • Sleeping more or feeling sluggish
  • Fatigue despite lots of sleep
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Fidgeting or alternately, slowed movements or speech (severe enough to be observable by others)

According to the American Psychiatric Association, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of seasonal depression that affects 5% of Americans for about 40% of the year, although the toughest months are usually January and February. It is diagnosed 4 times more often in women than men and is far more prevalent in those who live further from the equator – for example, just 1% of those who live in Florida suffer from SAD versus 9% of those who live in Alaska. SAD is similar to other types of depression or physical conditions, such as an underactive thyroid, so be sure to consult with your healthcare provider or a mental health professional if you think you may be experiencing SAD.

What Causes SAD?

Thus far, research indicates that sunlight helps to maintain normal serotonin levels (and hence, mood), but in people with Seasonal Affective Disorder, this regulation does not seem to function properly, resulting in decreased serotonin levels in the darker months. Other findings suggest that people with SAD produce excessive amounts of melatonin, an essential hormone that controls the sleep-wake cycle. Both serotonin and melatonin are related to regulating the body’s circadian rhythm and changes in either can disrupt normal daily functions, leading to sleep, mood, and behavioral issues such as grogginess, difficulty concentrating, depressive thoughts, carb cravings, and fatigue. The latest studies have revealed that deficiencies in Vitamin D, caused by low dietary intake of the vitamin or not enough exposure to natural sunlight, have been found in people with SAD. Besides its key role in calcium absorption, Vitamin D activates the immune system, and releases neurotransmitters such as dopamine and you guessed it, serotonin. Researchers have discovered Vitamin D receptors in the same regions of the brain that are linked with depression. This power-packed nutrient is created by our bodies when sunlight is absorbed through skin cell receptors, which may be difficult to do during the cold, dark days of winter.

What are Some Natural Ways to Address SAD? 

Supplement with Vitamin D3, but also spend some time outdoors if you can, as sunshine is the best source. Sunlight not only stimulates Vitamin D production but also serotonin production. This, of course, can be challenging depending on where you live and what kind of weather you are experiencing during the height of winter. Though you can’t get enough Vitamin D through food alone, during the shortest days of the year, you could consider supplementing your diet with Vitamin D-rich foods such as fish – including salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines. Cod liver oil and eggs (especially the yolks) are also good sources. 

Try light therapy, which to date, is the most widely used and extensively investigated alternative treatment for SAD. A pooled analysis of studies done in 2005 shows that 43% of individuals with moderate to severe symptoms experienced complete remission when sitting in front of a very bright light, usually first thing in the morning. The recommended daily duration varies from 30 minutes to 2 hours per day, and the optimal dose of light itself is 10,000 lux of full spectrum light set behind an ultraviolet shield. It may be wise to consult with a healthcare practitioner who can tailor the use of the light therapy lamp to your unique circadian rhythms and your local region and weather patterns.

Exercise also helps relieve all types of depression, including Seasonal Affective Disorder, because physical movement releases endorphins and serotonin, both mood-elevating neurotransmitters. Endorphins are also related to the fight or flight response, so they infuse your body with a natural jolt of energy, sometimes referred to as the “runner’s high” among joggers, and the release of serotonin will also increase memory, alertness, concentration, and focus. All of these sensations counteract SAD symptoms while also helping to prevent or improve other health problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and/or arthritis. No need to do anything super intense – long walks, yoga, cycling, swimming, or dancing 20 to 30 minutes, 3 times a week will help improve your mood. Try doing some of these activities outside if you can, to pair them with some sunlight absorption, and be careful NOT to exercise at night as it can disrupt your melatonin production.

Sleep and wake at the same time every day to help support a healthy circadian rhythm. It is directly tied to the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) in the hypothalamus, which regulates everything from your body temperature, sleep patterns, digestion, blood pressure, and blood sugar, to your general sense of alertness. Establishing a consistent sleep schedule is significant because of the impact it has on the SCN and your melatonin levels in particular, which as you already know by now, plays a crucial role in SAD symptoms, so for well-balanced melatonin levels, avoid napping in the middle of the day and stick to a regular sleep routine.

Consider Adding Flower Essences

However you choose to address your SAD symptoms, consider adding Light Beam Flower Essence to your regimen. Gentle and natural, this calming and uplifting blend of herbs and flower essences can help to alleviate the depressive symptoms so common with Seasonal Affective Disorder. This tonic is meant to be taken in small doses throughout the day, as an energetic medicine, 3 drops or less up to 3 times daily. Albizia, Damiana, St John’s Wort, and Black Cohosh work together cohesively to relieve dark, depressive feelings. All of these plants are known for their uplifting nature, though St John’s Wort has had the most studies, many of which show that it is as effective as different standard prescription antidepressants for depression of mild to moderate severity. Light Beam also contains a powerful combination of flower essences which can aid in your ability to overcome the darkness that follows the coldest season of the year. Baby Blue Eyes and Borage Gorse build your emotional resiliency and help to lift depressive thoughts. Love-Lies-Bleeding allows you to let go of circular thoughts and surrender yourself to the present moment and Scotch Broom is an antidote to pessimism and despair.

Hopefully, now that you are equipped with some knowledge and these helpful tips, you can rejoice instead of feeling the effects of SAD. There is a light at the end of the tunnel! And with some exercise, light therapy, Vitamin D3, and a little Light Beam Flower Essence, you’ll be ready for winter in no time.

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