A Naturopathic Approach to the Winter Blues
While most of us feel better when the days are longer with ample hours of sunshine to lift our moods, certain individuals are vulnerable to a type of depression that follows a seasonal pattern. Severe winter blues, known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), is a type of mood disorder characterized by more severe forms of these symptoms mentioned below. SAD is recognized by medical professionals as a common mood disorder that affects individuals during the fall and winter months. Individuals with SAD may feel down and extremely fatigued.
They may also experience:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Withdraw socially
- Suffer from weight gain
- Experience a decrease in libido
Other symptoms include:
- Lack of motivation
- Increased cravings for carbohydrates
- Other sleep disturbances
How widespread is SAD
SAD becomes more prevalent the farther the away you are from the equator. 90% of people in the US and Canada experience some form of the winter blues. While surveys estimate that 4-6% of the general population experiences symptoms of SAD, another 10-20% experience sub-syndromal features (S-SAD – less severe symptoms of SAD). Compared to men, women are generally two to four times as likely to be affected by SAD and S-SAD. The average age of onset is approximately 23 years of age and some studies have found that those between the ages of 20-40 seem to be the most susceptible.
How light affects our mood
In general, the symptoms associated with the winter blues begin with the shortening of the days in late autumn and diminish in the spring and summer due to a disturbance to our circadian rhythms (our body clocks) as a result of reduced exposure to light. Light establishes our body clock by affecting various hormones that tell us when to wake up and when to go to sleep. During the winter months when not enough natural light is available, our brain produces too much of our sleep hormone, melatonin, during our waking hours which leads to lethargy and sleepiness. In addition, there is a decrease in serotonin– the hormone tied to a positive mood, lower appetite, and wakefulness. Having low levels of serotonin is associated with conditions such as anger, depression, and anxiety.
What can be done: Treatments for SAD – A Naturopathic Approach
Some naturopathic remedies to combatting SAD and S-SAD include:
- Light therapy
- Dietary changes
When natural light is unavailable, light therapy can help to maintain our normal circadian rhythm and balance serotonin and melatonin levels. If you are suffering from SAD, light therapy has been shown to be as effective as taking fluoxetine (Paxil) without the corresponding side effects.
Other methods of mitigating the effects of SAD include dietary. Many patients crave carbohydrates, perhaps as a mechanism to raise serotonin levels directly or because the lack of light affects the hormones which control appetite. Excessive carbohydrate consumptions may results in an imbalance in blood sugar levels leading to further increase feelings of fatigue and increase cravings.
Choosing fun, non-restrictive exercise routines have been shown to increase energy levels among patients with depressive disorders. Exercise can also help to manage the weight fluctuations that often occur during the winter months.
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A realistic, yet comprehensive naturopathic approach is required to treat the winter blues. Dr. Suzanna has successfully treated many patients with SAD, using a combination of herbal remedies, and simple, effective lifestyle and dietary interventions that may lead to dramatic results.