Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is a type of depression that follows a seasonal pattern, starting in the fall and continuing through the winter, sapping energy and making a person feel moody. Symptoms can include depression, changes in appetite (in particular a craving for sweet or starchy foods), weight gain, decreased energy, fatigue, a tendency to oversleep, difficulty concentrating, irritability, avoidance of social situations, feelings of anxiety and despair, loss of interest in activities, and a heavy or leaden feeling in the arms and legs. These symptoms generally disappear when spring arrives. SAD may be caused by changes to the body’s circadian rhythms, a change in serotonin levels (which affect mood), and a change in melatonin levels (which affect our sleep patterns and moods).
Severe SAD can be very debilitating, and even in its milder form, SAD can affect our ability to cope with daily life. Research suggests that between 2% and 3% of the general population may have SAD while another 15% of us experience a less severe type described as the “winter blues.” Indeed, these winter blues are common for many Canadians, because of our much shorter days in the winter months, and particularly in BC where winters also bring overcast, gloomy weather. SAD may also be of concern for shift workers and for urban dwellers that may experience reduced levels of exposure to daylight in their work environments.
It is important to be aware of our sensitivities to the seasons and to adjust our habits and lifestyle accordingly in order to be able to live an enjoyable and productive life year-round. There are many things that we can do to relieve SAD or winter blues, and the best approach seems to be combining the things that work for you. People with severe symptoms of SAD may be recommended antidepressant medications combined with these lifestyle habits, as well as counseling and therapy.
People with SAD can benefit from spending some time outdoors every day, even for just a short duration and even in cloudy weather. Arranging the home or office for maximum sunlight such as keeping the curtains open, pruning back trees in the fall, and sitting near a window can help. Exercise is also very effective for relieving SAD, and daily exercise has been shown to relieve the symptoms of mild depression. Exercising in the morning may also help to regulate our bodies’ melatonin levels. Light therapy is also a common treatment for SAD, and involves daily exposure to a special type of bright, artificial light.
Acupuncture is a very effective option for treating SAD. Depression, anxiety, SAD, and other mood disorders respond very well to acupuncture, as do symptoms such as insomnia, low energy, irritability, and concentration. Because of acupuncture’s stress-relieving and relaxing effects, people suffering from SAD will often feel immediate relief following treatment. With regular, continued treatments, acupuncture can help to minimize and prevent SAD symptoms and help the body adapt to seasonal changes. Acupuncture works by helping our bodies to regain their healthy balance, influencing and correcting our various systems that are responsible for our sleep, our energy, our moods, our digestive system, and our immune system, among others. It is a gentle and health-promoting strategy that works not only to relieve symptoms but also as a preventative to improve health and prevent problems from arising.
SAD is an important reminder to us all to tune in to our body’s cues and to incorporate changes that reflect the changing of the seasons. Winter is a natural time for reflection and inactivity and we need take extra care to nurture ourselves at this time in order to maintain our health. Avoiding over-working and too much stress, increasing our exposure to light, monitoring our diet, sleep patterns and exercise levels are important for all of us. It is also worthwhile to find the strategies that work for each of us personally, whether that is light therapy, meditation, counseling, acupuncture, massage, or any other therapies that enable us to maintain both physical and mental well-being. For warding off the winter blues, acupuncture is well worth-adding to your winter regimen.
James Kaufman is a Registered Acupuncturist at Okanagan Acupuncture Centre, 1625 Ellis St, downtown Kelowna, BC. He can be reached at www.okanaganacupuncture.com.