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Don't be SAD

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Do you get depressed and tired during the winter? It is quite normal to feel more sluggish during winter. Just as many animals go into hibernation in the winter, people in the temperate zone need more rest.

Do you get depressed and tired during the winter? It is quite normal to feel more sluggish during winter. Just as many animals go into hibernation in the winter, people in the temperate zone need more rest.

Big-time Blues

If you think you are a bit too lazy, or you find yourself feeling depressed, maybe you have seasonal affective disorder or SAD. Many people feel mildly depressed during the winter, but some have more severe bouts of feeling down all the time: low energy, problems with sleep and appetite, and reduced concentration to the point where they have difficulty functioning at work or in the home. These people have clinical depression. SAD describes those who have clinical depression only during the autumn and winter seasons. During the spring and summer, they feel well. North American settlers called it cabin fever, Inuit peoples call it Arctic hysteria, while in Finland and Norway, suicide rates dramatically increase during the winter months.

The common symptoms of SAD include extreme fatigue and lack of energy, increased need for sleep, sleeping much more than usual, and carbohydrate cravings with increased appetite and weight gain. How common is SAD? Experts say that SAD affects 40 million North Americans. Seventy-five to 80 percent of SAD sufferers are women, for whom the illness typically begins in the third decade of life. SAD has also been observed in children, who may be irritable, have difficulty getting out of bed, and experience problems in school during the fall and winter.

Let Your Little Light Shine

Many patients with SAD improve with exposure to bright artificial light, called phototherapy (light therapy). As little as 30 minutes per day sitting under a light box can give significant improvement in 60 to 80 percent of SAD patients. The light has to hit the eyes, or at least the face, to be effective. The therapy may use ordinary fluorescent light bulbs (although many recommend full spectrum lights) with an intensity of 10,000 lux, about 10 to 20 times as bright as ordinary indoor light. I find light therapy in the early part of the day, especially before going off to work, to be the most effective. People with milder symptoms of the “winter blahs” may be helped by simply spending more time outdoors and exercising regularly in the winter.

How does this work? One theory is that people with SAD have a disturbance in the “biological clock” in the part of the brain that regulates hormones, sleep, and mood. In SAD individuals this clock “runs slower” in the winter. Brighter light may help to “reset the clock” and restore the normal function. Another theory is that changes in brain chemicals, particularly serotonin and dopamine, may be disturbed in SAD; these imbalances are corrected with light therapy and/or antidepressant medications.

Sunny Days are Here Again

Nutritional supplements can also help with this disorder. Melatonin is well known to help reset the “biological clock.” The normal dosage is three mg of melatonin before bed. There has been much debate over how St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) works. One of the old folklore descriptions said that it concentrated the light of the sun; newer studies show it boosts serotonin levels. The normal dosage for St. John’s wort is 300 mg three times daily. There have been some studies showing that vitamin D (400 IU), which we get by exposing our skin to the sun, can also reduce the symptoms of SAD significantly.

Other tonic herbs I use in the winter to increase energy and reduce the winter blues are Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) and cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis). You can often find these herbs together in the same formula, designed for high-performance athletes, but they can also give a boost to most people if taken on a regular basis. I suggest two to three capsules twice daily.

You know, the birds worked out a solution to this problem years ago. They just flew south! If you can’t head to a sunnier climate this winter, phytotherapy and nutritional supplements may help you alleviate the symptoms of SAD. The good news is–sunshine and longer days are on their way!

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