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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