For many in the northern hemisphere this time of year, the shorter days and longer nights are accompanied by seasonal affective disorder. The acronym is, rather appropriately, SAD.
Many are flattened every year and have no idea what's happening. They're irritable and depressed. They're tired and lethargic, dragging out of bed in the morning. They may have a hard time concentrating. Their love life can suffer. Cravings for carbohydrate comfort foods may spike for months at a time as the winter weight accumulates.
In severe cases, sufferers of SAD experience thoughts of suicide and intense withdrawal from the rest of the world.
Jo Clarke of Telford, Shropshire, UK has always found winter to be a challenge. After she got hit with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome some years ago, her experience with SAD intensified.
"I start to feel the dread coming down on me round about November time, just after the clocks go back and I celebrate the Winter solstice rather than Christmas, because it is then that the days start getting longer again. But it's a long climb out till I start feeling better round about March time."
Seasonal affective disorder is often misunderstood and misdiagnosed as hypoglycemia, hypothyroidism or mononucleosis. Or paradoxically, it may be seen as not physical at all, and the person struggling with very real symptoms of SAD may be everlastingly told to buck up and pull themselves together, as though this inner drooping is some whim on their part.
But physical factors are all too real in this supposed case of the blues. As sunlight decreases, so do your levels of melatonin, a chemical involved in your sleep patterns. When it's out of whack, melancholy, lethargy and carbohydrate cravings are common. And vitamin D levels and serotonin plummet in a downward spiral.
Albert Driver of Wilmington, Delaware struggled with seasonal depression for many years without knowing what was wrong. Year after year, as autumn daylight waned, he experienced disturbing changes.
"Symptoms included chronic fatigue, depression, irritability, dark 'raccoon type' rings under my eyes, extreme mood shifts, rage, lethargy, sour stomach, and many other symptoms that may have been related," Driver said. "Through researching everything I came to the realization that I was suffering from SAD."
Fortunately his research yielded a solution. "For treatment I used a Bluewave technology therapy light, and I had great results. I noticed an immediate improvement in my demeanor as well, as my natural body clock began to function better and my sleep became more restful."
A light box with fluorescent lights on a metal reflector is the most common light therapy. Fifteen minutes in front of a light box with 10,000 lux (equivalent to early morning sunlight) once a day upon arising is often recommended. If symptoms don't budge, exposure can increase slowly to 30 or 45 minutes per session.
For extreme symptoms, try two sessions a day for a total of an hour and a half. Often, things are more upbeat within a week. If after four to six weeks you don't find noticeable improvement, it's time to try another method.
Some people use a dawn simulator which can be set for a particular time, and which produces an "artificial dawn". You can set the dawn simulator for anywhere from one minute to three hours before awakening.
Negative ion therapy might help. Ionizers that clean the air release a negative ion. Irritation and depression may be reduced and your energy may increase.
Supplements like omega-3 fatty acids, St. John's Wort and SAM-e (pronounced "sammy") may lighten symptoms.
Traditional Chinese medicine would look at the whole person and their environment to determine treatment. Acupuncture releases neurotransmitters and hormones which help lift depression.
A balance between physical activity in winter and the desire to conserve energy and indulge in introspection should be sought. Being outdoors in winter sun, perhaps taking an hour-long walk in mid-day, can perk you up. If going outside is more than you can bear, allow whatever natural sunlight is available into your house, and use bright colors in the room which will reflect more light.
A Canadian gentleman I'll call Ralph used light therapy for awhile, but found that a walk before dawn suits him better. Ralph asked that his real name and location not be mentioned because he'd hate for his morning solitude to be broken by running into other people taking his advice.
Meanwhile, Clarke is embarking on her maiden voyage with a light box. "As I researched the same model kept popping up time and again as a best seller and that is the LitePod. It is easy to carry around from room to room and you just plug it in and away you go. I paid around £100 for it. It arrived today. I plugged it in, and bingo, instant, very very bright light."
"So now I'm all lit up," Clarke said. "It will be an interesting experiment."
Natural remedies for mental health issues
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Seasonal Affective Disorder From a TCM Perspective