In Britain, millions people suffer from ‘Winter-time blues’, but for some of these it is more than just a case of feeling a little low. Most of us feel down at times, especially when the days become short and the nights long, but for some, the Winter months can be a real misery.
It's a chemical balancing act
Interest the winter blues has flourished in recent years following the growing body of research surrounding Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD for short. This condition can affect anyone, including children, although some are more vulnerable than others. The trigger probably lies deep with in the brain and it’s ability to handle the changes in light intensity that occurs during the winter months. The lack of bright light is known to affect two substances in the brain; melatonin and serotonin. Light suppresses melatonin, a chemical that induces the feeling of sleepiness where as serotonin thrives on bright light. Conversely, darkness pushed the melatonin up which, in turn, lowers the serotonin levels. This can be associated with the classic symptoms of low mood through to overt depression.
SAD was only discovered relatively recently. In the 1970’s researcher Herb Kern noticed that he felt completely different within himself during the summer and winter months. He was bright, cheerful and productive in his work during the spring and summer, but as autumn approached he found that he became increasingly lethargic and unhappy. He grouped together with some scientists to try light as a therapy for his symptoms and by 1982 Norman Rosenthal and his team published a description of Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Symptoms and Treatment
Although there are many symptoms associated with SAD, depression is one of the main indications that you maybe suffering from SAD, especially if you are only affected between the months of September and April. As the underlying cause of SAD is a lack of light, it makes good sense to increase the amount of light you receive. Apart from leaving the country for warmer climes, this is easily achieved by using a light box, of which there are many available. In general, a 30 minute exposure is typically required in front of a light box that emits light at an intensity if 10,000 lux. In addition to using light as a treatment, there are many other methods that will help prevent and decrease the severity of your symptoms.
One of the most potent herbs for helping the symptoms of depression is the ‘Sunshine herb’ or St Johns Wort. Due to its effectiveness, this herb has received much media attention and some studies have shown that in its own right St Johns Wort (Hypericum) can improve depressive symptoms of SAD, even when light therapy is not used. It works by affecting the levels of serotonin and by raising them, the symptoms of depression are alleviated. St Johns wort is a safe herb when taken correctly but care must be taken if you are taking other prescribed drugs and it should not be taken along side SSRI type antidepressants. St Johns wort has also been noted to interfere with the oral contraceptive pill so should not be used by those taking it. Consulting your doctor or pharmacist will help clarify any possible drug interactions and should be done before considering using any St John’s wort preparation.
Although the majority of people do not feel as vitalised on a dark Winter morning as they do during the bright summer months, SAD sufferers have great trouble rising from bed in the morning. Not only is oversleeping common, but drowsiness throughout most of the day results in the need to nap in the afternoon. It is wise to avoid napping and instead try to force yourself out of bed in the mornings, so that you can take a walk, especially on bright mornings. Exercise releases the body’s
Feel-good chemicals (endorphins) so you may start to feel better mentally, and physically it can only be beneficial. For those looking to help re-balance their sleep-wake balance the food supplement ingredient known as Lactium may offer the answer. Lactium is a string of amino acids isolated from the milk protein known as casein. Studies indicate that lactium can enhance brain pathways associated with a relaxed state of minds and also help facilitate sleep. Unless you have a milk protein allergy Lactium containing supplements such as Zen Time with Lactium may be worth considering is you feel sleep has become a problem.
Sugar cravings are a common symptom of SAD, so you must try to get into the habit of eating sustaining foods such as complex carbohydrates which include pasta, bread potatoes and rice. Although sugary foods like cakes, biscuits and sweets will initially make you feel more energetic, it will be short lived as a hormone insulin will soon be released to clear the sugars from the blood, leaving you feeling even more washed out than before. Taking a tiny dose of chromium, just 200 micrograms a day, can help your sugar balance and possibly stabilise the ups and downs associated with sugar cravings. However, diabetics should only take chromium under the supervision of their doctor or health professional.
Unfortunately, people affected by SAD tend to suffer from colds and ‘flu as their immune systems tend to be weaker. There are many ways to boost your immune system, but one of the best preventative methods lies in the herb Echinacea. This herb has proven itself in many studies, worldwide, for its effectiveness in boosting a weak immune system. Try taking a small dose of Echinaforce daily, before symptoms set in to prepare your immune system for the winter months. Increase the dose if you do become affected by a cough or cold.
Try to include at least five portions of fruit and vegetables in your daily diet as the vitamins and minerals contained in these will also help to boost a flagging immune system. Certain vitamins such as vitamin C, B6 and the mineral zinc are especially important, and try using zinc lozenges if you are affected by a cold.
As we are discussing the effects of Winter time taking a Winter booster of vitamin D is always a wise thing as levels can drop with the reduced exposure to UV light that triggers its natural production within the skin. Vitamin D is now known to play a key role in regulating a healthy immune reaction so lowering your levels over the Winter is not a wise idea.
Due to the depression and lethargy associated with SAD it is inevitable that your mental health will be affected. Feeling too tired to cope with anything along with the despair, irritability, misery and anxiety can causes problems in your relationship between family and friends. It is important that those around you offer support and understanding to prevent these symptoms from becoming even greater. Many people opt for counselling, not only for the person affected by SAD but also for the people around them to help cope with everyday life.
Some final general tips.
- Seize time outside in the daylight whenever you can.
- Do some exercise. Any kind of physical activity will lift your mood.
- Eat fresh fruit and vegetables. Sluggish winter bodies seem to crave carbohydrates, but too many comfort puddings will drag your mood down even more.
- Don't bottle up your feelings.
- Boost your vitamin D intake – consider a supplement over Winter.
- Where appropriate, explore using St Johns Wort and Lactium containing products for mood and sleep support.
- Check out SAD-lights that offer full spectrum light at a 10,000 LUX intensity
- Lift your vitamin C, zinc and B6 levels through diet or supplement use.
- Consider using echinacea if you feel a cold brewing