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The Bright Side of Winter Blues

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Linda dreaded the winter. She usually made it through the holidays OK, but things went downhill after the first of the year. As the winter progressed, she became increasingly irritable, depressed and fatigued.

Linda dreaded the winter. She usually made it through the holidays OK, but things went downhill after the first of the year. As the winter progressed, she became increasingly irritable, depressed and fatigued. Some days she couldn't even muster the energy to get out of bed. Furthermore, she went on an eating frenzy. In the dark of winter she would become a bagel maniac, eating up to a dozen bagels a day. This resulted in weight gain that depressed her even more.

Linda was suffering with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a unique type of depression that strikes susceptible individuals during the winter months. Although you may not have full-blown SAD, you may experience some of its symptoms. Many people tend to sleep and eat more, have less energy and experience more down days at this time of year.

Although SAD is an established medical diagnosis, exactly what causes it is uncertain. Abnormalities in melatonin, the hormone that responds to light, were once felt to be involved, but more recent research points to disturbances in the neurotransmitter serotonin.

Many physicians and psychiatrists prefer to treat SAD like any mood disorder with antidepressant drugs. The runaway best-sellers for treating depression are the class of drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Lovan and Luvox, which are used by millions of people worldwide, alter levels of serotonin by blocking its removal, thus leaving more serotonin to bind to receptor sites in the brain. If you consult a doctor about depression, you can bet you'll be given a prescription for one of these antidepressants.

Light Therapy

Mild to moderate depression can be treated safely and naturally without resorting to drugs. The safest, most effective and least expensive therapy for SAD is light. And the healthiest way to increase your light exposure is to get outside for at least half an hour in the middle of the day.

However, hundreds of studies have also demonstrated that exposure to bright light from a specially designed light box improves symptoms of SAD. In a recent clinical trial conducted at the University of Toronto, researchers found that two-thirds of study subjects improved within three weeks with 45 to 60 minutes of daily exposure to 5,000 lux. (A lux is a unit of illumination.

The sun at noon on a clear day emits 100,000 lux; the lights in your home are 100 to 200 lux.)

Another option is to replace some of the light bulbs and fluorescent tubes in your house with full-spectrum bulbs and tubes, which provide the closest thing going to natural sunlight.

If you're really blue when winter rolls around, look into light therapy. In Linda's case, it only took five days of treatment before her mood lifted, her energy returned and her carbohydrate cravings disappeared.

Beating Depression Drug-Free

Simple lifestyle changes, such as getting enough sleep and eating a good diet, are also enough to improve mood in many people. Equally important is regular physical activity. Because exercise elevates endorphins and other mood-enhancing brain chemicals, it is perhaps our single most potent mood elevator.

An effective herbal antidepressant is 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), which is a natural precursor to serotonin. A dose of 30 to 50 mg at bedtime on an empty stomach is often enough to lift mood and facilitate sleep. It may safely be increased to as much as 100 mg three times a day over several weeks.

On a final note: If you suffer from severe depression, seek medical help immediately. And remember, do not abruptly discontinue a prescription antidepressant. Do so only under the supervision of your physician.

SAD Statistics

How common is SAD? Experts say that it affects 40 million North Americans (15 million with true SAD and 25 million with sub-syndromal SAD or "winter blues"). Studies estimate that SAD is more common in northern countries because the winter day gets shorter as you go farther north. In Florida, less than one per cent of the general population has SAD, while in Alaska as many as 15 percent of people may suffer from winter depression.

Source: Terry Willard

St. John's Wort: The Sunshine Herb

How does St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum), the much-publicized herb for depression, really work? This question has been debated among academics and researchers in both Europe and North America for the last several years.

Several European companies claim that to get results for depression, we have to use St. John's wort with a specific amount (0.3 percent) of hypericin present. However, it was proven back in 1996 that hypericin is not the active ingredient for the antidepressant function of St. John's wort; even with the hypericin removed, it still works as an antidepressant. In fact, after spending millions of dollars and years of study, we finally know what the active ingredient of St. John's wort is St. John's wort! It is the whole herb and nothing but the herb.

There is no doubt St. John's wort alleviates mood disorders, as we use it for literally thousands of patients who come through our clinic every year. It is more effective than most pharmaceutical antidepressants. In Germany, St. John's wort is prescribed five times more often than pharmaceuticals for depression. This still doesn't tell us how it works.

One thing we do know is that it blossoms and matures when the sun is at its height in June each summer. In fact, levels of several of the active constituents are directly determined by the amount of available sunlight. In cloudy years, the chemical levels are low, and vice versa. I like to think of St. John's wort as a herbal solar battery that captures the sun's energy. This is why I recommend it in the short days of winter for people who feel a bit under the weather.

St. John's wort is effective in most cases of SAD. We can use the "solar collector function of St. John's wort to release energy to us in the winter, when we are solar-deprived. The normal dosage of St. John's wort is 300 mg taken three times daily.

You know the birds worked out a solution to this problem years ago. They just flew south! So, with that said, I'm packing my bags and heading off to the Aloha state.

Source: Terry Willard

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