Winter Blues and Seasonal Affective Disorder: Caring for Ourselves in the Darkness
Last week, we explored why you probably can’t get Vitamin D from the sun in the winter, and what you can do about it. So many of us know intellectually the importance of light to our emotional health, but often we don’t quite know how to take care of ourselves in the darkest part of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. Many of us have often heard how the lack of light in the darker months of the year (from about October to March) can lead to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which includes symptoms of the “winter blues,” such as sadness, anxiety, irritability, premenstrual irregularities, fatigue, decreased libido, and a lack of activity in general.
In humans, it is important for us to have a regular circadian rhythm. There are a number of biochemical processes and hormones that are involved. Melatonin is a hormone that is secreted from the pituitary gland and affects sleep-wake cycles and reproductive functions. We need melatonin secretion to start to rise in the evening, reach an apex in the middle of the night, and go back to normal in the daytime, however in SAD patients, it was found that there are higher levels of melatonin in the daytime, which is associated with sleepiness and fatigue.
Light boxes can be very helpful, and often the treatment of choice, in supporting normal circadian rhythms in the wintertime when sunlight isn’t so strong. However, please contact your health care provider and do your homework because not all light boxes are created equal. There has been some interesting new research on how energy production within the mitochondria in our cells can be positively influenced by certain rays of light. When I have a better understanding of this concept, I’ll write up a blog post :) While some opt to take a supplemental form of melatonin, there are a number of side effects, such as headache, dizziness, stomach upsets, daytime sleepiness, and interactions with medications, such as blood-thinning medications, immune system suppressants, diabetes drugs, and birth control pills. In addition, there have not been studies on long-term use of melatonin supplementation.
I am very careful if I am to recommend any kind of hormone supplementation to clients and often recommend gentler herbs to calm the mind for sleep, such as in my blog post entitled, Top Three Herbs for Restful Sleep. More discussion about melatonin supplementation in the late afternoon/evening vs. the morning for certain people is here in this article detailing the research at the Oregon Health and Science University.
Magnesium, a mineral which is often quite deficient in a significant portion of the population, has been found to be effective in helping to alleviate a number of different sleep and mood disturbances, for instance in seasonal changes of depression in this study.
For myself, back in the Winter of 2018, I was dealing with stress that came along with a significant life change. I dealt with anxiety, depression, a feeling of being “tired and wired,” circadian rhythm dysfunction (issues with low cortisol and low melatonin), as well as other symptoms, similar to those in Seasonal Affective Disorder. I supplemented with therapeutic levels of Magnesium (for information on therapeutic levels of magnesium, please visit your health care practitioner). In the weeks following the supplementation, as well as making sure my diet was filled with whole, plant foods, I began to recover and my symptoms dissipated. I even felt relief within the first week of the protocol.
Circadian rhythm issues happen in the winter, but are also a problem throughout the year due to our very full, active lives, going to sleep late into the night often after heavily concentrating on projects, using electronic devices with LED screens, and rising early in the morning. Here are some tips inspired from my previous article entitled, Top 10 Tips to Enhance Your Daily Routine:
When you wake up in the morning, raise the curtains and take a look outside for five minutes. Or even better, go outside, gaze at the sky (not the sun directly), and breathe in the fresh air.. You don’t have to go far; you can even just stand on the porch, driveway, or sidewalk for a few moments. Just taking in the light with your eyes can help balance your circadian rhythm, even though the sunlight is not so strong this time of year in many places.
Schedule time for movement at the beginning of the day to jumpstart your body’s natural rise in morning cortisol. Cortisol is one of your body’s stress hormones that is naturally elevated in the morning and needs to be present in the body in a level that isn’t too high or too low. Movement could even be as simple as dancing around to your favorite music while making breakfast. If you cannot work in movement at the very beginning of the day, take a little walk each day during your lunchtime.
Turn off all electronic screens an hour before bedtime. Studies have recently shown that for some, LED screens kept individuals from falling asleep because it messes with the natural melatonin production, help your body to ease into sleep. If you must use the computer, try an app called “Flux” that changes the tint of your computer screen (https://justgetflux.com/) based on the time of day. The app uses a gentle yellow-based light instead of blue that has been shown to increase excitability before bedtime. Take necessary steps to balance your work and personal life to create boundaries so that this can happen most effectively. Sometimes this is difficult, but not impossible!
Take a nice warm bath using a cup of epsom salts. The epsom salts contain magnesium and through the skin is one of the best ways to absorb it. If you have some pure lavender essential oil, add a few drops drops to the water to enhance the relaxation. In addition, a magnesium supplement before bed, such as one known as Calm in some water can be very helpful. You can drink the magnesium drink once it has cooled if you use hot water. Or, if you use cold water, wait 20 minutes after adding the powder to the water because there is a special chemical reaction that must happen so that it has properly converted into ionic magnesium citrate.
Enjoy a cup of hot chamomile tea to help wind down (or other herbal tea, such as lemon balm, scullcap, tulsi, or valerian. Also, Sleepytime Tea is quite a nice blend!) Use local raw honey as a sweetener, if needed. Honey can actually be used as a relaxing sleep aid.
Go to bed and wake up at the same amount of time each night. Get at least 7 to 9 (or more) hours of sleep.
Extra tip: Laugh! Hang around people who make you smile and are funny. Watch stand-up comedy or funny movies. Pass around funny memes on social media. Laughing helps to produce the feel-good chemicals and neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine. So laugh those winter blues away!
As always, seek medical attention to discuss any of the concepts I share. A good therapist can also help process some of the intense emotions that come up in the wintertime.