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Got The Winter Blues?

Posted Dec 29 2008 6:01pm

Noche de luna llena - Full moon night In the midst of this holiday season, surrounded by bright lights, colorful displays and tidings of comfort and joy, many among us are simply sad. Although this could be related to unfulfilled expectations or unhappy memories, it’s just as likely to be weather-related.

Despite efforts and actions toward happy wellness, some people experience symptoms of depression during the winter months, which abate during the spring and summer. This may be a sign of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is a mood disorder associated with depression episodes and related to seasonal variations of light.

SAD was first referenced in medical journals in the early 1800’s, but wasn’t officially recognized and named until the 1980’s. Knowing that the number of sunlight hours in a given day affects seasonal animal behaviors including reproductive cycles and hibernation, scientists assumed that same change in seasons could affect human behaviors as well. Some deduced that SAD is an effect of this seasonal light variation in humans.

As seasons change, there are fewer hours of sunlight in fall and winter, and more hours of darkness. Melatonin, a sleep-related hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain, is produced at increased levels in the dark, and when overproduced, can cause symptoms of depression.

Not surprisingly, January and February, the months with the fewest number of daylight hours are the months during which seasonal depression is most frequently reported. On an interesting note, younger people and women seem to be at greatest risk. If you predictably get “the blues” every fall or winter, you may suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Symptoms Include:

  • regularly occurring symptoms of depression (excessive eating and sleeping, weight gain) during fall or winter months
  • full remission from depression occur in the spring and summer months
  • symptoms occurred in two or more fall/winter seasons, with no nonseasonal depression episodes
  • seasonal episodes substantially outnumber nonseasonal depression episodes
  • a craving for sugary and/or starchy foods

Treatments Include:

Phototherapy, or bright light therapy, has been effectively used to suppress the brain’s secretion of melatonin. Although, there have been no research findings to definitely link this therapy with an antidepressant effect, many people respond quite well. The device most often used today is a bank of white fluorescent lights on a metal reflector and shield with a plastic screen. For mild symptoms, spending time outdoors during the day or arranging homes and workplaces to receive more sunlight may be helpful. One study found that an hour’s walk in winter sunlight was as effective as two and a half hours under bright artificial light.

If phototherapy doesn’t work, an antidepressant drug may prove effective in reducing or eliminating SAD symptoms, but there may be unwanted side effects to consider. Discuss your symptoms thoroughly with your family doctor and/or mental health professional.

If you are not willing to risk the side effects of a prescription antidepressant, you may want to follow Dr. Andrew Weil’ s recommendation and consider trying St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum). This extensively researched herb is an effective treatment for a range of conditions, including:

  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
  • Mild to moderate depression
  • Nervousness
  • Insomnia
  • Anorexia
  • Skin irritation, including herpes simplex

Look for  tablets, capsules, tinctures, fluid extract, powdered extract or oil that are standardized for hyperforin and hypericin. Dr. Weil recommends 300 milligrams three times a day. As an antidepressant, it may take six to eight weeks to work. If you suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, you may want to use St. John’s wort in conjunction with phototherapy, or bright light therapy.

If you’re feeling blue, I hope this gives you some tools toward wellness; and I wish all of you a happier holiday season.


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