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Feeling Down? Beat the Winter Blues - Naturally
After moving to New York from South Africa to complete his residency in psychiatry, Dr. Norman Rosenthal began experiencing lethargy and mood changes in the fall and winter months, but when summer arrived, he noticed these issues vanished. As a result, he began to study mood and its relationship to circadian rhythms. His research resulted in the book "Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder."
Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), sometimes called "winter depression," can include feeling sad, depressed, and not finding the same pleasure in activities you used to enjoy. Sufferers may experience low energy, difficulty sleeping (or feeling the need to sleep hours more each night), less interest in socializing, loss of sex drive, difficulty concentrating, cravings for sweet and starchy foods, and gaining or losing weight. Women, who experience depression 70% more frequently than men, often report worsening of premenstrual syndrome symptoms.
A milder form of seasonal depression, the "winter blues" can similarly lead to low energy, feeling "down," putting on weight, and having difficulty getting out of bed in the morning.
If you suffer from the winter blues or feel you may have symptoms of SAD as the days get shorter, there are remedies that can help. Traditionally there have been three methods of treatment: antidepressants, bright light therapy, and psychotherapy. Recent research is also showing that exposure to specific frequencies of sound and vibration can have great results as well.
Bright Light Therapy
One of the most effective methods of treating SAD and winter blues is by using specially-designed light boxes that produce a light intensity of 10,000 lux. Since Rosenthal's initial study, there have been over 60 published studies confirming a success rate of 60%-90%. This research has shown that 30 minutes per day of exposure to a 10,000 lux light source can help reduce the symptoms of SAD. Exposing retinal cells to bright light early in the morning stimulates the hypothalamus which can help to restore normal circadian rhythm.
A few years ago, an older couple visited to ask me for advice, as the woman was suffering from serious depression. She had tried dietary supplements and antidepressant drugs prescribed by her doctor, with no benefit. She was so sad she was crying every day, and her husband was hoping I could assist them in some way. When I learned that her depression was worse during the winter, I recommended she give bright light therapy a try. Neither had heard of this approach, and they were skeptical that something as simple as a lamp could help. After I explained that this is a common seasonal problem and that clinical studies had shown it to be effective, they purchased a light therapy device with the hope that it might be helpful. About a week later the couple returned and told me that the light therapy had made an amazing difference. Not everyone will see this type of result, but her depression had all but disappeared. After using the light for 30 minutes each morning, she returned to being the happy, positive, productive woman she used to be.
Vibroacoustic Therapy and Brain Entrainment
The term entrainment describes how our brainwaves adjust or synchronize to sound. When we are exposed to sound and vibration at certain frequencies, our brains naturally work to match those patterns, which can result in a variety of health improvements. Studies confirm that 15-30 minutes of daily exposure to sound and vibration at specific frequencies can be effective in treating fibromyalgia, slowing the progression of Alzheimer's disease, improving cognition, and boosting self-confidence. Sound therapy has been shown to help reduce stress, anxiety, and insomnia. It can promote relaxation, help build bone density, strengthen the immune system, increase circulation, lower blood pressure, and reduce headaches. Vibroacoustic therapy devices have been used in clinical and home settings to help treat depression, including seasonal affective disorder and the winter blues.
Dietary Supplements and Lifestyle Factors
In a study published in Neuropsychobiology, supplementation with nine vitamins at levels 10 times higher than the recommended dietary allowance over one year resulted in improved mood for both men and women. Before taking any of the recommendations outlined below, I suggest you discuss treatment options with your healthcare provider, someone knowledgeable in nutritional medicine.
Amino Acids: Controlled trials have found that the amino acids L-tryptophan, L-tyrosine, phenylalanine, and methionine can be helpful for treating depression. Zenbev, a formula made from pumpkin seed flour designed to help improve sleep, is rich in the amino acid L-tryptophan. Tryptophan is converted into melatonin under darkness, but if taken during the day it can help alleviate depression by increasing levels of serotonin. I've found that Zenbev, when used in concert with vibroacoustic and/or bright light therapy, can produce even better results than with either therapy alone.
Vitamin D: Various studies have shown that low levels of vitamin D are associated with SAD. I recommend 5000 IU daily during the summer months and 10,000 IU per day during the fall and winter (particularly important for those living in higher latitude areas).
St. John's Wort: An herbal supplement used in Europe for many years, 300 mg of a .3 percent extract three times a day for eight weeks can be effective.
S-adenosyl-L-methionine:SAMe usually works more rapidly than St. John's Wort. 400-1600 mg per day, taken on an empty stomach is recommended.
Fish Oil: Many studies have shown that 1000-3000 mg per day of the omega-3 essential fatty acid EPA (not DHA) can be helpful for mild depression and for promoting a healthy mood.
Cholesterol: Recent studies indicate that lowering cholesterol through diet and medications can increase depression. If you are taking cholesterol-lowering drugs (statins) and experiencing depression, speak with your doctor.
Sleep: Improving sleep hygiene is critical to reducing depression. I recommend maintaining a regular sleep routine, not watching TV or using electronic devices in bed, and avoiding caffeinated beverages (especially after breakfast). It's important to shield the eyes from blue light for 60-90 minutes before bed, and to create a totally silent and completely dark bedroom setting, free of all ambient light (including street lights, night lights, and LED clocks). A sleep mask, earplugs, and a white noise sound machine can be helpful if you can't block out light, or if there are environmental factors keeping you awake. Consider using a dawn simulation lamp which mimics a sunrise to wake you up in the morning with a light that gradually increases in intensity.
Exercise: Dr. Andrew Weil believes regular aerobic exercise is the most effective treatment of all for mild to moderate depression, and one published study confirmed that daily 1-hour outdoor walks resulted in a 50% improvement.
Most Canadian cities only get 8-9 hours of daylight in December; many people experience some of the effects Dr. Rosenthal first noticed in New York. Bright light and vibroacoustic therapy can often provide effective relief, especially when combined with exercise, L-tryptophan, vitamin D, and a quality multivitamin.