Feeling S.A.D.?

Do you ever wonder why the rain makes you want to lay in bed all day?  Or why you crave comfort foods and sweets during the chilly winter months?  Do you ever randomly begin to feel tired or blue following the hustle and bustle of the holidays, but can’t quite figure out why?  Well, you’re not alone.

These somewhat odd tendencies fall under the umbrella known as seasonal depression or SAD (seasonal affective disorder) and are actually more common than some may realize.   SAD, according to Mental Health America (2002)1, is a “mood disorder associated with depression that occurs with different variations of light,” and “affects about half a million people every winter between September and April, peaking in December, January, and February.”  MHA goes on to describe some other symptoms of SAD which include lethargy, irritability, overeating, tension or anxiety, difficulties sleeping, and a lack of desire to make social contact.

But why am I talking about depression in winter when we’re in the dead of summer and it’s 100+ degrees outside?  Well, it might always be sunny in California, but it’s not always sunny in other states.  And although the symptoms may not be persistent enough to qualify for SAD, we can still begin to feel blue if the sun decides to take a vacation behind the clouds for a few days.  Why does this happen, you ask? Let me tell you.

During sundown, our bodies begin to emit the hormone melatonin, causing increased drowsiness in the evening hours and a strong desire to sleep.  As the night progresses, we emit less and less melatonin, allowing our bodies to wake again after the sun comes up.  When it’s dark for longer periods of time than normal, such as during a storm or in winter, our biological clocks begin to become off balance and extra melatonin is produced, which increases our desire to sleep and may result in other depressive-like symptoms.  This internal process may also explain the cause of jet lag or the feeling of disorientation if you’ve been working in a dark room all day.  Another example of this was shown in a study conducted by Gonzales and Aston-Jones (2008)2 who kept rats in complete darkness for 6 weeks and noticed they began to show anatomical and behavioral patterns similar to people with depression, such as increased immobility during a swim test and neural damage in the brain.

The good news is that there are quite a few natural remedies to keep you from feeling blue.  The first (and best) way is exercise! Exercise is the best antidepressant out there and can even help re-regulate your circadian rhythm and help you sleep better at night.  Light boxes or light therapy may also available for individuals who have been experiencing symptoms of SAD for many years.  You can find out more information here  or here.  Another easy remedy is getting rid of all that leftover pie from Christmas or the cupcakes you left the party with after your friend’s birthday. Refined sugars deplete the body of B vitamins and can contribute toward feelings of depression.  And although those simple carbohydrates can boost serotonin levels, it’s better to focus on eating complex carbohydrates such as rice, green beans, and whole grains because they offer a more enduring mood lift without all the calories and sugar.3  Maintaining a regular sleep schedule is also important.  Try to go to bed and wake up around the same time every day, and don’t take naps longer than 30 minutes.  Adding these modifications to your daily living should help you feel better in general, but of course if you’re still feeling down, it’s always best to talk to a licensed professional!

REFERENCES
1 http://www.nmha.org/go/sad,
2 Gonzalez, M. C., & Aston-Jones, G. G. (2008). Light deprivation damages monoamine neurons and produces a depressive behavioral phenotype in rats. PNAS Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences Of The United States Of America, 105(12), 4898-4903. doi:10.1073/pnas.0703615105
3 Mindell, E. & Mundis, H (2004). The Vitamin Bible. Grand Central Publishing: NY, NY.
photos courtesy of http://www.sxc.hu/
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