It is the time of year when people, especially it seems, millennials, report feeling depressed and unhappy. The less sunshine we see, the more dreary, blue, grumpy, low and unhappy people feel. What’s worse, these negative emotions lead to eating more carbs, weight gain, increased sleep and difficulty concentrating. And this is the holiday season????
What causes this? This dip in mood is thought to be caused by 1) our upset biological clock impacting our circadian rhythm, 2) lowered levels of serotonin that is one of the feel good chemicals in the brain, and 3) an imbalance in the production of melatonin, a sleep-related hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain.
The decreased levels of serotonin and imbalanced levels of melatonin in the brain have been linked to people suffering from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), a mood disorder associated with depression episodes and related to seasonal variations of light.
It’s been reported that as early as 400 BC, Hippocrates observed illnesses related to the change in seasons. And the early wise medicine heroes even recommended light therapy for those gloomy souls just 200 years later.
SAD affects as many as six out of 100 Americans during the late fall and winter season, more in the northern parts of our country than in the south. Out of those who are affected, 60 percent to 90 percent are women, and SAD occurs more frequently in younger people in there 20s.
SAD symptoms include:
Desire to oversleep
Feeling of fatigue and inability to carry out a normal routine
A craving for sugary and/or starchy foods, usually resulting to weight gain
Loss of self-esteem
Difficulty concentrating and processing information
Tension and inability to tolerate stress
Decreased interest in sex and physical contact
Sunlight is crucial to human health, and when we don’t get enough exposure to it our moods and physical health will suffer. More specifically, your serotonin levels (the hormone associated with elevating your mood) rise when you’re exposed to bright light. You may have experienced this “high” feeling after spending some time on a sunny beach, for example.
Similarly, the sleep hormone melatonin also rises and falls (inversely) with light and darkness. When it’s dark, your melatonin levels increase, which is why you may feel naturally tired when it begins to get dark outside (even when, in the heart of winter, this may be at only 4:00 p.m.).
It is because sunlight affects the melatonin-serotonin system that it works so well to alleviate the symptoms of the winter blues and elevates mood. In fact, some studies have even found that light therapy or phototherapy, which is the practice of using full-spectrum light therapeutically, works to relieve the symptoms of the winter blues and SAD often better than some antidepressant medications.
Light therapy requires that you sit close to a special “light box” for 30 minutes a day. The light is best rated at 10,000 lux (“lux” is a measure of light intensity). By comparison, that is approximately 100 times brighter than usual indoor lighting. A bright sunny day is about 50,000 lux or more. There is no assurance that light therapy will be the answer, as it doesn’t work for everyone.
Light boxes, prescribed through your physician, made by a variety of manufacturers, are often recommended for serious cases of SAD. These light boxes are about the size of two computer monitors side-by-side and cost a few hundred dollars. The light box sits on your desk or table, and as soon as you get up you sit under it. The boxes screen out ultraviolet rays, so you won’t get skin cancer, but you also won’t get a tan. Experts think the bright sun-like exposure resets the body’s internal clock.
Other issues which are related to SAD are the cravings of comfort food, which tends to be greasy, salty or sweet food. Although eating these foods may give you temporary relief, they aren’t good for you in the long run. Exercise is known to boost people’s moods and is good for depression. Do it. Nothing more to say on that one!
There are a number of studies that show that the use of cod liver oil or fish oil that are rich in essential omega-3, are associated with decreased depression. SAD sufferers have found that adding Vitamin D to their diets also result in some mood lift. Of course, serotonin reuptake inhibitors (Zoloft and Paxil for example) and other anti-depressant medications such as Wellbutrin or Effexor are also commonly prescribed for SAD. Some folks find benefit from St. John’s Wort, a natural herb that helps with depression, thought it’s not recommended to be taken if you take an anti-depressant. Cognitive behavior coaching is also effective in learning to see your circumstances in a, pardon the pun, in a different light.
Sometimes making small changes in your life are an excellent way to pull yourself out of a funk. The following ideas are very simple, and they can make a big difference in your day and your mood:
Add some new decorations in your home
Surround yourself with aromatherapy oils/candles that you enjoy
Treat yourself to a massage or warm bubble bath
Prepare a special meal for your family or significant other
Listen to a favorite music as you walk outside
Journal to reflect on your grateful emotions or day’s activities
Pamper yourself with healthy food, good books, movies and other favorite activities
Call an old friend
Organize your living space (clearing clutter can be calming for your mind)
Catch, challenge and change your negative thoughts…remember, the link is what you think about your sadness, regardless of the time of you.