By: Dr. Jonathan Tait – 11/18/2015
Anyone else heading in to work before the sun is up, and heading home after it is down?
The lack of seeing that great big glowing ball in the sky can be affecting your health. While not as common in the sunny Southwest, compared to the snowy, gray Midwest, you can be affected by our seasonal weather change.
It is called Seasonal Affective Disorder.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
This is a depressive state that some people can experience seasonally, year after year, usually in the fall and winter. If you suffer from SAD, you may feel great during the spring and summer months, but starting around October or November, symptoms begin showing up – low energy, Eeyore mood, and a generalized lack of “go”.
This is a real condition and may have a real impact on your life over the next several months.
Researchers still don’t know the exact cause of SAD, but there are some factors that seem to be involved. The decreased amount of sunlight you may be exposed to with the shortened days is the biggest likely contributing factor.
Another big factor is a disruption of your body, or circadian rhythm: With the changes in the sunlight, and how much you are able to catch in a day, your normal body rhythm of wakefulness and sleepiness can be disrupted.
This in turn will affect your production of hormones and other signaling chemicals called neurotransmitters.
- Melatonin: Melatonin is a hormone that impacts mood and sleep. It is stimulated by darkness, and shut down when we get out into the bright sunshine. This time of the year you may be in the office when the sun is just getting up, and by the time you get home, it is gone. This will cause your body to “carry” a bit more melatonin than normal, and the result may be feeling like you want to nap any chance you get.
- Serotonin: Also, when the sunlight drops, so do serotonin levels. Since this nervous system chemical helps stimulate feelings of well-being and happiness, not having enough of it can cause your mood to sag.
What are the Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
- Feelings of sadness or depression.
- Sluggish and sleepy – struggling to get out of the bed in the morning, feeling drowsy during the day, and going to bed earlier than you usually do.
- Low energy
- Poor concentration
- Weight gain – SAD sufferers commonly crave foods high in carbohydrates and can gain between 9 and 30 pounds each year.
- Social life may suffer. If you have low energy and your mood is depressed, you just won’t enjoy being around others as much as you used to, and others likely won’t want to be around you. This can turn into social withdrawal increasing your feelings of depression and sadness even worse.
Now for the good news!
4 Ways to Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
- Light therapy: Up to 85% of SAD sufferers can be helped by simply “walking towards the light”. If you can’t get home and go for a walk before the sun is down, then get out mid-day, or for an afternoon break. A 20-30 minute session daily is ideal, but even spread over shorter 10 minutes sessions, it can be very effective.
- Vitamin D3: Vitamin D is actually more of a hormone than vitamin with important roles in supporting a healthy heart, cellular replication, immune system, mood & mental health, muscles, blood sugar levels, and more. Vitamin D is frequently referred to as “The Sunshine Vitamin” because it is produced when your body is exposed to sunlight. In fact, just 20-30 minutes of sunlight can produce as much as 10,000 – 50,000 IUs of Vitamin D – more if you don’t mind walking around outside your workplace in a speedo. The more skin exposed, the more you can produce. If you can’t get outside for your 20-30 minutes a day, you may want to ask your healthcare provider about supplementation of Vitamin D.
- Exercise: Exercise is a powerful player in the fight against SAD. When you exercise, your body releases “feel good” including serotonin and dopamine. You also produce noradrenaline giving you a boost of energy, and your own natural pain-killing chemicals called endorphins. The chemical surge following a short 30-minute moderate intensity burst of exercise will boost your energy, increased your brain-power and focus, and will bring about a feeling of well-being.
- Changing Your Environment: Unlike the spring months, in which the light of dawn and dusk changes gradually, the winter months bring a much more abrupt change of light, especially with the sun downing early. This may be one of the aggravators of SAD. Some people have success using a dawn simulator. These appliances can be programmed, much like an alarm clock, to gradually brighten your room each morning before you wake up.
As the pace of life, and your “busy-ness” seems to hasten coming into the holiday stretch, and the weather changes may affect the chemistry in the body, you are not alone if your mood is sagging along with your energy levels.
Experiment with some of suggestions above, and seek professional help if you just can’t seem to rebound to your regular self.
Some simple tests I use every week in my practice may be able to determine if your lack of go is due to something more. Commonly nutritional deficiencies or imbalances, food allergies, or a specific problem with your adrenal glands, or “energy glands”, could be other contributing factors.
Now go get out in that sun!