Do you suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)? AKA Winter blues? You are not alone, and there is help!
Every year in November, the clocks in New York get turned back an hour. I dread this time of year because I know what is coming next. The short days and long dark nights that start to wear on my outlook, my energy level, and my emotional state. Each year I discover I have less and less reserve to weather the lack of sunlight, despite my fighting like hell against it. My heart feels so heavy by January that all I want to do is sleep and eat (which makes me gain weight and sets me off on a vicious cycle).
I learned early on that I suffer from a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder or (SAD), and it is not fun, nor should it be ignored. SAD affects over 500,000 people a year, and (of course) ¾ of these people are women. There are other names for SAD, like Winter Blues or Cabin Fever. Despite the light-hearted connotation of these names, SAD is depression.
The depression I have experienced during the wintertime has gotten so bad that I experienced thoughts of suicide. I cannot express how hopeless SAD can make a person feel, especially coupled with the holidays. The last thing a person with depression wants to do is go to a friggin party.
Here is a list of SAD symptoms:
- Extreme fatigue
- Anxiety over small issues
- Thoughts of death, ending it all, suicide
- Crying easily
- Low sex drive
- Little things set you off
- Experience little or no joy
- Cravings for Carbs (I have this all year long)
- Sleeping unusually long without feeling rested
- Social withdrawal
- Inability to concentrate
- Heavy heart blues
- Going long periods without self-care (showering, brushing teeth, etc.)
- Eating for comfort, not for hunger
Admittedly, I suffered from most of these symptoms, and I have to leave for work at 5:45am (which is cold, dark and brutal). If you are suffering from any of these symptoms, please see your doc ASAP. There is treatment, both conventional and alternative. No woman could possibly be healthy and functional if she is suffering from this debilitating disorder.
Your doctor should do a blood test to make sure you are vitamin D, and B 12 levels are within normal limits. A deficiency in D and B12 vitamins are linked to a lot of the symptoms on this list. Your doc should also check your thyroid function and have a chat with you regarding your whole self (physical, social, psychological, emotional). If you feel your doctor is not taking you seriously, please consider a doctor of osteopathic medicine or an integrative practitioner. These docs tend to treat the whole person and are less likely to dismiss your symptoms as a female age-related expectancy (that drives me banana’s). The symptoms on this list are not normal under any circumstance.
As a person who has suffered from SAD for my entire adult life, I am telling you there are changes you can make right now that can ease your symptoms.
Factors you can change right now to improve your symptoms of SAD:
Please remember I am not a doctor. All of the following recommendations are just recommendations. It is always a good idea to chat with your doc before trying something new.
Get your sleep on a schedule.
Sleep hygiene is essential to the creation of a solid foundation for your body to function correctly. Without a decent sleep schedule, you will always feel as if you are in a fog, sensitive, and unable to operate at peak performance. However, this is easier said than done when you suffer from SAD. Unfortunately, many of us who suffer from SAD also suffer from insomnia. I think there is a genetic component to insomnia, but I will save that for another post.
Do not take naps over 20 minutes during the day. Taking naps over 20 minutes can interrupt your circadian rhythm (an internal process that tells your body when to sleep and wake). I know by 3pm, you feel like your legs and head are full of lead, but attempt meditating instead of napping. Try downloading the app Headspace. Headspace is a meditation app that not only teaches you how to meditate but also has audio to help you fall asleep. They offer courses on sleep and meditation and have all kinds of advice for a peaceful mind. I use it daily and nightly, and it can be used for free (I did purchase the upgraded version).
Try going to sleep at the same time and getting up at the same time every night (yes, even the weekends). Full disclosure, I do not always do this, and I feel like crap on the days I fall out of sync. There are sleep hygiene apps you can download that track your sleep for you. Go the American Sleep Association website and check out the list of apps that are free to assist you on your quest for better sleep. https://www.sleepassociation.org/sleep-treatments/sleep-apps/ Do not consume stimulants after 4pm. I have a rule that I cannot have coffee after 4pm. I noticed that when I do have coffee or even caffeinated teas, I cannot for the life of me fall asleep. Some people are susceptible to the effects of stimulants, and they can really disrupt your sleep cycle. If you smoke, please quit, but if you do, try not smoking after 4pm. Nicotine is a stimulant and can also disrupt your sleep. I hate to say this girls, but chocolate is a stimulant as well. Do not eat anything past 6pm. The act of digesting can actually disrupt your ability to fall into deep sleep cycles (restorative sleep). Eating late can also cause reflux and other gastric issues that can keep you up. Shut off the computer (and phone) an hour before you go to bed. Our computers, phones, and other electronic devices emit EMF’s (Electric and Magnetic Fields) that interrupt brain waves and can cause insomnia. EMF’s are hard to avoid in our culture; however, it is best to limit your exposure before trying to wind down for the night. Keep the temperature down in your bedroom, and make sure it is dark. Heat and light adversely affect your quality of sleep, and this simple tweak can improve your quality of life. I am not suggesting you freeze your partner out, but a comfortable 65-68 degrees would do you a world of good. If you cannot get rid of the light, try a sleep mask. Your brain will be so pleased if it doesn’t think it is day time all the time. Try Valerian Root, an herb that induces a sense of calm and really helps you stay asleep. Valerian root is the original Valium and Xanax. I take 2 Solaray Valerian Capsule 515mg about a ½ hour before bed.
I tried taking Valerian Root as a tea, but it smells like feet. Please bear with the feet odor because it really works, I sleep like I am in a coma.
Start supplementing with Vitamin D3 and K2
Vitamin D is known as the “sunshine” vitamin. Vitamin D3 is the most absorbed type of D (there are two, D2 and D3). When your body is exposed to the ultraviolet light in sunlight, your body converts the light into Vitamin D3. Vitamin D is essential for bone health, brain health, immunity, absorption of calcium, and low levels have been linked to depression. There have been studies that indicate a large percentage of people with depression have a vitamin D deficiency. Integrated practitioners swear by this vitamin and recommend dosages higher than the FDA suggests. However, vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin and does get stored in the fatty tissue. Those of us who live up north (I live on Long Island, New York) get very little sunshine from November – April. Here is an example, it’s 40 degrees, gray, dreary, and going to rain (again). This is a typical day on Long Island in the winter, and it gets very tiring. I am sitting at my desk with a plant light on my face. When I am done, I am heading to the gym to go to the tanning booth. The sun plays a much more significant role in our bodies and psyche than just a vitamin D conversion. Almost all living things require sunshine to survive.
It is challenging to get vitamin D from sunlight up north during the fall and winter months. Supplementing does help to improve vitamin D levels, and some people get relief from SAD. I take 5000 IU’s of vitamin D3 daily, and my vitamin D levels are still borderline low. Before you start supplementing, contact your doctor and have your levels checked. Foods that contain vitamin D are fatty fish, like salmon (no more than twice a week), cod liver oil, eggs, liver, cheese, fortified milk, and SUNSHINE.
Vitamin K2 works alongside vitamin D for better absorption of calcium into the bones. Vitamin K2 is not as popular as it should be, it is an incredible nutrient. Did you know taking K2 along with vitamin D3 (add some vitamin A) could increase the health of your teeth? In fact, there is proof that it does improve the health of teeth and has been known to cure cavities! Also, if you are supplementing with D3, you do run the risk of calcium deposits forming in the vessels and joints, vitamin K2 helps prevent this from happening. I take 100 mcg of vitamin K2 with my D3, along with 500 IU of vitamin A every night before bed. Foods that contain vitamin K2 are egg yolks, dark green leafy veggies, grass-fed beef (only grass-fed animals convert K into K2), fermented soy, and dark chicken meat.
If you can afford a quick vacation, take it!
Not everyone could afford to pack up and go someplace sunny in January or February. The fights are expensive, and hotels price gouge. Everyone up north is desperate for some sunshine, and the prices reflect the demand. Every year my husband and I go to Scottsdale, AZ, in the winter. Scottsdale isn’t exactly cheap, but it is affordable. The weather is beautiful, usually in the 60-70s during the day and 40’s at night. The temperature is not hot, but the sun is guaranteed to shine. Arizona has 299 full sun days per year, New York has 99 (seriously, it is no wonder why we have SAD). If you can get away for a few days, here is a list of the warm places that are not too pricey….
This list was found on https://www.tripstodiscover.com/18-amazing-and-affordable-winter-vacation-destinations/2/
- The Florida Keys
- Puerto Rico (did you know you didn’t need a passport?)
- Las Vegas (even if you don’t gamble there is so much to do)
- Montego Bay Jamaica
- Punta Cana, Dominican Republic (I’ve been here many times, and it is fantastic)
Get a lightbox
I just bought my son a lightbox because he is exactly like me when it comes to being sensitive to a lack of sunlight. A lightbox is a full spectrum light that emulates sunshine. You put it on while you are watching TV, working on an article (like me), or working out. Try to place it, so your eyes see the light, and you expose yourself for at least 20 minutes a day. These lights are trendy in Alaska, where there are towns that have 67 days of darkness (I would die).
You can pick a lightbox up on Amazon pretty cheap!
Since we are talking about light, I would like to mention (again) that light from your computer, smartphone, and some e-readers are not suitable for a brain that suffers from depression. Invest in a pair of blue blocker glasses and use them when you are working on the computer or surfing on your phone. The blue light that is emitted from our electronic devices can actually stop our bodies from making melatonin, which interrupts our sleep, therefore makes the depression even worse. Our eyes do so much more than just see! Our eyes signal essential chemicals to be release in our brains. I knew computers and lousy lighting could be unhealthy, but it was not until I read Head Strong, by Dave Asprey, did I learn the depth of impact light has on our bodies. Here is a link to the book if you want to check it out.
Talk to a professional
The act of expressing how you feel encourages your brain to release feel-good chemicals. Did you ever notice how much better you feel after you confide in someone about something your struggling with? Try to find a therapist that does Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a type of talk therapy that has been proven to help folks with SAD.
Ask your primary care physician for a referral of a therapist that does Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Try to find a depression support group, online or in person. Tell you besties what is going on with you. Believe me, they picked up that you were feeling a little off, but did not want to say anything. Women are incredibly perceptive when it comes to a change in someone’s energy. There are online psychologists now that you can Facetime. If you don’t have the time to get to a therapist, why not bring them to you? I believe a face to face interaction is more effective because physical interaction releases endorphins (feel-good hormones). However, any talk is a good talk, no matter how you achieve it.
Herbs and supplements
Before there was big pharma, there were medicine men/women. SAD is not a modern experience, it has been plaguing folks for eons.
If you are concerned about the side effects of some of the medications, you can try supplements that are known to improve depression symptoms.
There are several herbs you can try for your SAD. One prevalent herb is St. John’s Wort. St. John’s Wort is a plant that grows wild and is prescribed in Europe to treat depression. Some people experience relief with St. John’s Wort, unfortunately, I was not one of them. I took it for a while, and I did not have any relief. However, this does not mean it will not work for you. Please consult with your doc before trying this if you are on other medications. SAMe (S-adenosyl methionine) is a natural compound found in the body that is involved with many actions, such as activation or breakdown of lipids and hormones. SAMe is prescribed in Europe for the treatment of depression, as well as 100 other ailments. SAMe can interact with antidepressants and other medications, so ask your doc before you try it. Omega 3 fatty acids are extremely important for brain health. A deficiency of omega 3 fatty acids could trigger symptoms of depression. I recommend Krill Oil because it has the lowest amount of contaminants and is most effective. 5-HTP (5-Hydroxytryptophan) is an amino acid that is a precursor to the production of Serotonin (the feel-good neurotransmitter). Again, in Europe, 5-HTP prescribed for the treatment of depression. Vitamin B6 has been known to improve symptoms of depression and bipolar disorder. NAC (N-acetylcysteine) is the new kid on the block. Your body needs NAC to make the most potent antioxidant, glutathione. NAC also keeps a neurotransmitter, glutamate in check. When glutathione and glutamate are out of balance, a person can experience depression, OCD, and bipolar disorder. NAC improves the balance of these important compounds and alleviates symptoms of depression. There have been some excellent studies that back NAC’s effectiveness. It is a good idea to take this even if you are not suffering from SAD.
Medication is an option
We can breathe a sigh of relief that the days of stigmatizing medicines for depression is finally over. I know more people on Zoloft than I do people who take Advil. If you tried all of the methods above and have not experienced any relief for your SAD, then perhaps you should consider medication. Don’t think about medicine as a bad thing, sometimes it is a game-changer. Your quality of life is everything, and that should be your primary concern. Talk to your doctor and tell him/her what is really going on, maybe they can direct you to a medication that targets what you are experiencing.
Some of the more popular medications for treating SAD are:
Please keep in mind that these medications take time to work. There are no magic bullets, just tools to help you through this tough time. Do not combine these medications with the supplements before speaking to your doc.
Last but not least, exercise
I know I always mention exercise in every blog, but there is a reason for my harping. Exercise is essential for our overall well-being.
Take a 15 walk around the block, throw yourself on the floor, and do a sit-up, get tension bands, and work your arms. Start to exercise slow and work your way up at your own pace. Don’t start out with 10,000 steps a day. 10,000 steps is really an ambiguous number that was a starting point for an experiment. Just move your body and do it daily.
Hopefully, some of the suggestions in this blog are helpful to you. Be very kind to yourself during this low energy period, the sun will come out again someday. Treat yourself to a massage or get your roots done. Talk to someone, anyone, and make sure you practice self-love. Remember, you are so worth the effort!
References and excellent websites to visit for this topic