The Dark Depressing Days of Winter

by Karen Harris | Print This Page

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As the days get shorter and darker, do you find yourself feeling a bit blue?

You may chalk up your depression to the holidays. The hustle and bustle, the pressure to buy the perfect gift, the fear of stretching your dollars, the hordes of relatives descending and fighting. It can all get to you. But, normal holiday fears aside, your blues may actually be caused by your natural rhythms and the season. Hence the name: Seasonal Affective Disorder. As many as 10% of Americans may experience seasonal depression.

SAD can be triggered by abnormal circadian rhythm (your body clock is out of whack) and a neurotransmitter imbalance (your brain’s chemical messengers have trouble relaying information between your nervous system and the rest of your body). These problems are thought to be triggered by alterations in the daily light-dark cycle and lowered melatonin release in the body.

What are the symptoms?

Changes in sleep and circadian rhythm are the most prevalent signs of depression. If you have SAD , you may have:

  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Decrease in your total sleep time and efficiency
  • Early-morning waking
  • Changes in REM sleep
  • Changes in your ability to regulate your body temperature
  • Changes in the timing of peak cortisol release
  • Daily changes in mood
  • Increased appetite and weight gain
  • Increased sleepiness and daytime sleepiness
  • Less energy and ability to concentrate in the afternoon
  • Loss of interest in work or other activities
  • Slow, sluggish, lethargic movement
  • Social withdrawal
  • Unhappiness and irritability

What are the causes?

You can protect against feelings of depression through several therapies.

Get your Vitamin D levels checked. Vitamin D is a bit of a misnomer because it’s actually a hormone, not a vitamin. Your skin produces it from exposure to sunlight. So, yes, some sun exposure is good. The recommended dose is about 15 minutes a day. Once your skin produces Vitamin D, it’s sent to the liver to be converted to a pro-hormone. Finally, your kidneys and immune system activate it throughout your body. So how much do you need? The Institute of Medicine recommends a daily dose of 600-800IU. A simple blood test can check for optimal levels.

Light can also affect your melatonin level. Melatonin is produced in the pineal gland and its release into your body is partly controlled by light-sensitive pigments in your retinas. Your body synthesizes melatonin from tryptophan in foods and serotonin with help from B-vitamin co-factors.

Beyond stimulating vitamin D production, melatonin production is also stimulated by bright light, which isn’t so prevalent at this time of year. If you aren’t getting enough sunlight, a light box may do the trick. These vary in style and intensity, but a 10,000 lux light box seems to work well if used for 30 minutes/day upon waking. Lower intensities such as a 2,500 lux light box may require two hours to see effectiveness. Studies show that light therapy seems to work best if used first thing in the morning upon waking because exposure to light during the night disrupts melatonin production.

A less-common approach known as “social rhythm therapy” attempts to stabilize sleep and wake times, meal times, and timing of social contact. You can try setting standard times for basic functions and keep a journal to see if you have improved sleep and mood.

Your job may also be causing SAD. Certain careers, such as night-shift jobs, may pose an increased risk since your circadian rhythms are out of whack. You’re sleeping during the day when you need the sunlight exposure to make Vitamin D and you’re awake at night when your body wants to sleep. You just don’t get enough sunlight since the days are shorter. Working in an office with little exposure to sunlight may also cause risks. While a change of job may not be possible, try to get exposure to the sun when possible.

What can you do?

  • Eat a low-glycemic, blood-sugar friendly diet
  • Reduce caffeine intake
  • Seek stress-reducing activities such as meditation, yoga, deep breathing, and exercise
  • Take adequate Vitamin D dose within the recommended 40-80nmol/L range
  • Sleep in a dark room and consider purchasing “blackout blinds”
  • Seek out early-morning exposure to bright light, or purchase a 10,000 lux light box.
  • Consume foods high in tryptophan (turkey, beef, liver, salmon, lamb, scallops, snapper, halibut, chicken breast, mushrooms, spinach, raw tofu and soybeans)

Unfortunately, some people may be more genetically vulnerable to SAD. If you’ve tried all the ideas above and still feel depressed, please see a doctor, who may prescribe anti-depressants, or supplements such as Vitamin D, melatonin, St. John’s Wort or others that support insulin resistance and blood-sugar stabilization.

Special thanks to Dr. Alexander Rinehart, MS, DC, CCN, for sharing his expertise with us. A Doctor of Chiropractic and Certified Clinical Nutritionist, his commitment to mind/body/spirit integration is emphasized by working in partnership with his patients. Contact him at Coactive Health and follow him at @ARinehartDC.

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