Beating Seasonal Affective Disorder
By Norah Wilson
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression that affects many people. Generally, symptoms begin as the days start to shorten in late summer/fall, worsening as winter approaches, and improving when the days begin to lengthen in the spring. (There is also a form of SAD that afflicts people in the summer, but that’s not my issue.) The trigger is believed to be reduced daylight, which can disrupt circadian rhythms, increase melatonin production, decrease serotonin production, or a combination of all the above. SAD is not recognized by psychiatry as a distinct disorder, but rather is lumped in as a subtype of depression. But I’m here to tell you it’s very real! And it is NOT just your garden variety cabin fever we all develop in winter.
All things considered, my SAD is probably pretty mild. I never feel hopeless or helpless or contemplate self-harm, which can happen with SAD. But I do get irritable, withdraw socially, start carb-loading like Tie Domie, and basically become a sloth. Worse, my emotions go flat and I can’t seem to write. How can I begin to imagine how my hero or heroine feels when I can’t even feel my own emotions? (Or when I want my heroine to stab the hero in the eye with a pointy stick?) Not good.
Fortunately, there are plenty of things you can do to combat seasonal affective disorder. My number one tool is light therapy, which goes to work on the hypothalamus, lifting mood and relieving symptoms. The next most important weapon is regular, vigorous exercise, preferably outdoors. Since I work full time, I don’t see much daylight in these long Canadian winters, but I take advantage of sunny weekends. Lastly, I try to balance my protein/carb intake. If I’m doing steps 1 and 2, this is not too hard to manage.
For those with more serious symptoms, medication may be indicated, and you should consult your doctor. There are some herbal remedies out there that can improve mood, like St. John’s Wort. Last year I tried an herbal product called 5HTP (5-Hydroxytryptophan), which really helped. 5HTP works by stimulating serotonin production, and is effective for treating depression, controlling appetite and aiding sleep. Unfortunately, I can no longer take 5HTP because I’m now taking antihistamines for another issue. In addition to antihistamines, there are a number of other substances with which this supplement should not be combined, including alcohol. Anything that has psychoactive properties should be approached with caution. It may be a naturally occurring amino acid, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t treat it with the same respect as an SSRI. As with all supplements, 5HTP—or St. John’s wort, for that matter—should be researched carefully before you decide if it’s for you. You should not take St. John’s wort, for instance, if you have high blood pressure.
But here’s the rub – you have to get on top of this SAD beast before the symptoms take a stranglehold. Once it gets a grip, it can be very tough to throw off. Once I’m in that state, I want to STAY there. I WANT to hibernate. I don’t want to be dragged outside to exercise or socialize. I don’t want to stop feeding my brain carbohydrates. I’m like that family member who has to be forced into drug rehab. So when I started to feel the pull in early August, I broke out my light therapy box. I’ve got it set up beside my bed. At 5:30 a.m., my Blackberry alarms. I switch on the light box and bask in 10,000 lux light for half an hour. At 6:00, my clock radio goes off and I hop up, ready for my 45 minute walk in darkness with my dog, Chloe. So far, it’s doing the trick. Keep your fingers crossed for me!
So…any of these symptoms sound familiar? Anyone else got tips for fighting SAD? We'd love to hear them. Okay, I would love to hear them.