Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Gray, Gray, Go Away

Fall and winter weather in the Northern latitudes brings a lot of gray and rain/snow and early darkness.  For a considerable number of people their thoughts, attitudes, and disposition go as gray as the weather; some even darker.  The diagnostic label that has been put on this is Seasonal Affective Disorder.  That the acronym, SAD, arises from it is just too much convenience for words.  I have speculated that people with heritages from more southerly latitudes might struggle with SAD more than those, like Scandinavians, from more northern latitudes.  But, perhaps my Scandinavian heritage and the lack of SAD I experience colors my opinion?
SAD is called a disorder rather than a disease because it is comprised of a constellation of known symptoms all of which might have multiple causes; that is, SAD cannot be strictly attributed to any one cause.  While the running theory with much anecdotal evidence to support it says SAD is caused by the lower light levels of winter, there is no identifiable mechanism in current medicine to explain how that works.  We could almost just as validly attribute this factor to the much increased exposure to artificial light, heat, and stale indoor air we experience in winter.  Further, there are a number of other conditions on physical, spiritual, emotional, and mental planes that can contribute to or cause SAD, like spiritual despondency or acedia; situational depression; or a concussion?
The list of symptoms for SAD include some or all of the following:
  • Lethargy                                
  • Tiredness                                                        
  • Discouragement            
  • Sadness                    
  • Either increased/decreased appetite 
  • Lack of Ambition/motivation 
  • Weight gain 
  • Sleeping too much/too little
  • Comfort food cravings
  • Anxiety
  • Pessimism and negativity in everything 
  • Better on bright/sunny days 
There are several things to use to affect a change in these feelings.

"Brain chemistry" is a phrase thrown around a lot these days.  It is a catchy medico-scientific phrase that was coined by pharmaceutical companies to lend an air of scientific- sounding knowledge to their goal to put an antidepressant in every home.  The fact is the pharmaceutical companies have put a huge amount of marketing together pushing predominantly serotonin-affecting drugs when A. there are many "brain chemicals" at play, B. Most "brain chemicals have insanely short duration times, and C. Nobody has a clue how any of the "brain chemicals" interact or behave.  I will be so bold as to say it: anti-depressants are likely to do nothing.
On the other hand, we do know about neuro-pathways - a term for thought patterns that get established in our brains, like a trail in the meadow.  The more frequently that thoughts occur, the wider and deeper and more established the trail becomes.  The more a thought is used to explain something, the more likely and automatic that thought pops to mind to explain things.  So, in short, we think ourselves into anxiety and depression and worry.  Once we start establishing labels to our thought processes, and see them as an inevitable part of who we are, the more difficult it is to pull ourselves out of the pathways.  "I'm a worry wort."  "I'm a depressed person because a dr. diagnosed me so, and I remember my mom and my grandfather were depressed."  "I have seasonal affective disorder because I get depressed every winter."  We MUST all be vigilant about what thoughts we are feeding our psyches.  We have TREMENDOUS power to supply our bodies and minds with a self-fulfilling prophecy just through what we think!  The mind-body connection is solidly established.  Battle off your negative thoughts by replacing them with positive thoughts.  Think of all the things you are grateful for in life -- from the ridiculously simple like running tap water to the more important like loved ones in your life.  Replace dwelling on sad, depressed feelings with dwelling on gratitude.
Vitamin D:  I've written other blogs about Vitamin D.  It is the sunshine vitamin.  Most people dwelling in northern latitudes run near the deficient borderline all the time.  When even less sunlight hits our skin it is easy to dip below the borderline.  Depression is a result of too little Vitamin D.  I recommend 2,000 IU a day.  Getting it and Vitamin A from a fish oil supplement provides an even wider array of health benefits.  Judicious use of a tanning bed is a great way of getting both a dose of light therapy and Vitamin D.
Light therapy:  Many people with SAD do benefit from the use of light.  There are expensive full-spectrum light boxes to more simplistic full-spectrum light bulbs.  Putting them near your desk or work space so that you can be exposed to their light for at least 30 minutes a day is a good plan for chasing the blues away.
Adequate nutrition.  Winter-time diets change.  Typically vegetables and fruits decrease and along with this decrease goes the nutritional density of our meals.  Protein feeds the cellular level of the brain.  Essential fatty acids from fish oil or flax oil or nuts/seeds keeps a lid on destructive inflammatory action that can zap your physical energy, with that goes your attitude.  Do not replace meals with lots of sugar or alcohol.  There are a lot of reasons for this that I've gone into elsewhere.  Just don't do it.
Sleep: The light changes of winter bring about altered sleep patterns.   You may be sleeping too much or not enough.  Either one is bad for what goes on in your head and for your life.  Melatonin, valerian, passion flower, skullcap, GABA, kava, and 5-HTP can all help with getting more sleep, while ashwagandha, Siberian ginseng, and even a little caffeine can help you get less.
Stress:  Finally, a word about stress.  Added familial and job stresses occur around holidays and with people having to stay cooped up in closer proximity than usual.  I remember hearing about a rat study long ago where the more densely caged the rats were, the more likely they were to become depressed and eat each other.  Let this be the lesson: too much togetherness with the klan can destroy your day.  Get some air, get some exercise, get a break from it all!  Exercise until you drop 3 or 4 times a week- the increased blood circulation through your head will flush out the depressed sludge, lower your stress, and transform your self-pitying no-good rotten feelings about what a slug winter turns you into.

And remember: Don't worry, be happy!

NatureWords for your health,
Dr. M.

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