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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

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.


At 8:34 AM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Interesting stuff, Norah. My husband always get a little crabby in the winter...I bet you he has some form of this. He talks about not getting enough daylight and he takes extra vitamin D at this time. Thanks for the info!

At 10:47 AM, Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Great tips, Norah. Living in the South you would think I would not have this problem. However, I do tend to slow down and feel less enthusiasm for life once the weather turns colder and the nights are longer. Fortunately, my herd of dogs and cats tend to DEMAND that I get up and get moving.

I need to spend more time outdoors. I think the artificial lighting at work just SAPS the joy out of my life. Or maybe that's just the job!

At 11:19 AM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Louisa, I don't like flourescent lighting. I can't think or keep my eyes open if I stay in a store with too much flourescent lighting... How many dogs and cats do you have now?

At 11:28 AM, Anonymous Barbara Phinney said...

Norah, great article. Thank you! In a way, the opposite is true. I find that I need a sleep mask to sleep at night, or try to black out my room. Too much sunlight keeps me awake and eventually wears me out.
And in the winter, I have done my best to crank up the lights, using even the grow lights. I feel a bit better, and have even sprouted half an inch!
Barbara Phinney, who is lying about the last part! LOL

At 11:44 AM, Blogger Mo H said...

Like Louisa, I live in the south. I've found getting outside in the winter helps me. Even when I think it's cold (nothing that a Canadian would think of as cold), I walked this past winter, and I think the combination of exercise and sunlight, even if it was cloudy, really helped me. I'd probably hibernate if I lived as far north as you!

At 1:04 PM, Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Theresa, I have nine dogs outside in dog runs, three small dogs in the house and four inside cats! So a herd is NOT an exaggeration. This has been my full compliment for a number of years now. Fortunately I have five acres and brothers and nephews who keep my dog runs in good repair. Each is at least 12 x 10, one is 15 x 30. They each have six foot fences, tin roofs, great doghouses and a patio area for sunning. Each dog has a roommate and most have been together since the day they were rescued. The reason my doghouses are so great is because my youngest brother owns his own construction company and is always trying new techniques on doghouses first.

Of course, I am not getting any younger and taking care of them AND working full-time AND trying to become a writer is a bit ..... EXHAUSTING!

I have put out the word that there is no room at the inn anymore. As much as I hate it, I just can't give the full measure of care and devotion to any more than this.

BUT, they DO get me up in the morning, even in the winter. I always leave the house and say "Mama's got to go make dog food money."

And yes, those flourescent lights are KILLERS!

Barbara, I have to have complete darkness to sleep as well.

At 1:16 PM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Theresa, good point about the Vitamin D. We had such a rainy, overcast summer, I stayed right on my 1000 IUs. I might even bump it to 2000 IUs for winter. I think the therapeutic range is 1000-3000 IUs.

At 1:24 PM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Louisa! You do have a herd of dogs. Oh, my word! I have a writer friend in New Mexico, the lovely Alice Duncan, who has 7 weiner dogs. Actually 6, now that Rudy's gone. She fosters them for the rescue league. Dogs are definitely your best friend when it comes to getting out in the morning.

At 1:28 PM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

LOL, Barbara, on sprouting under those grow lights. I also use a sleep mask. Just because all I WANT to do is sleep doesn't mean I do it well. I need all the help I can get. ,-)

Theresa and Louisa, I agree about the soul-sucking flourescent lights. One thing you can do these days is replace the regular bulbs with full spectrum bulbs. Huge difference to your sense of well-being, I'm told. Since I don't think our landlord will change ours, I've just ordered a full spectrum lamp to mount on top of my computer monitor.

At 2:15 PM, Blogger Karen said...


Good for you staying on top of your SAD symptoms. I usually have a bit of a problem with the fall time change. I think it's because it's so abrupt. At that time of year I usually play a little mind game with myself, saying everything will be all right, and that after the solstice the days will be getting longer again. No matter that it's just a minute or so each day, it helps me to remember that summer is just around the corner. My coworkers laugh at me when I say I can smell spring coming, but I always look forward to that first sniff!

At 2:17 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

LOL, Barbara! Gosh, if that would make me grow, I'd have all sorts of lights on over here...

Louise, wow, on the number of dogs and bless you! What a wonderful thing you've done for those animals. I love animals. I just wish I could hire someone to feed them and do all the hard work so I could just play with them...

I, too, need to sleep in complete darkness or I don't sleep well.

At 4:54 PM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Norah, I think my mother suffers from this. She also automatically protects herself by spending every spare moment outside, but it's amazing how powerful light can affect you. She also takes a mild anti-depressant year round, as much for pain relief of arthritis as for mood.

At 1:00 AM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

May I suggest something? If you or a loved one seems to be suffering from SAD, get a consultation with a psychiatrist. This is their specialty and they will work with you on finding the right medication and dose and being sure the meds don't interfere with other medications.

A psychiatrist is like any other specialty. You go to a cardiologist when you have heart problems. It's the same thing.

I have family members who have depression and who take meds, and I have myself for a time.

The light box is absolutely effective, Norah.

I took St. John's Wort for awhile. It made my hair fall out, a fact I had to discover for myself. This is not a common side effect, though.

At 6:41 AM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Diane said:
If you or a loved one seems to be suffering from SAD, get a consultation with a psychiatrist.

I absolutely agree, Diane. I self-diagnosed myself before anyone really gave much credibility to this disorder, and have learned a lot along the way. But if I were just developing this now, or just beginning to suspect it, my first stop would definitely be the doctor's office. And if my symptoms were to worsen, I'd get myself in front of a doctor quicker than you can say "clinical depression".

And let me stress again, just because herbal products and supplements are available without prescription does not mean you can take them with impunity. At the very least, you should talk to your pharmacist, who is often more knowledgeable than your doctor, about possible drug interactions.

And Diane, yikes on the hair loss with St. John's wort! Never heard of that before.

At 9:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My husband IS seeing a psychiatrist, on anti-depressant medication etc. Not only got SAD very badly every winter, but also the dementia-like behaviours that go with some depressions. I didn't have a husband during the winter months.
Enter my own doctor who specialises in nutrition. I mentioned to her that the fresh-foods-only diet she put me on (and which has done immense good) wasn't working so well for hubby as he's not that keen on the taste of vegetables or fish. She asked, then, about metal toxicity. (Later, we realised it might have more to do with the trihalomethanes formed by showering or bathing in chlorine-treated water might be the culprit in leaching out the zinc.) She prescribed Zinc and Vit B6, twice a day for him. Remember, this was not originally about his depression.
Miracle: winter came, no depression, no dementia-like behaviours. Conversely he now has great energy, is doing lots of things he hasn't done for years, getting out and about, and has a twinkle in his eye again - all winter.
I agree with the advice to see a doctor and to know what other medications you are on may react adversely with supplements or herbal medicines. Under this kind of conventional medical care that's focused on nutrition, we are both healthier - and happier - than we've been in years.


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