Surviving the Holidays, and Coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder


Have you noticed how dark it is by 7pm? Are you feeling like it's bedtime by 7:30? You're not alone. The Autumn Equinox on September 22nd marked the midpoint between the longest day of the year in June and the shortest day in December. That means there will be less and less daylight until the days grow longer around Christmas time. 

We are light-sensitive creatures. You may have heard the buzz around the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology this year went to three doctors who showed how out biological clocks interact with the light and the seasons. They did their research with fruit flies, who surprisingly have a very similar circadian rhythm to humans, and found effects in behavior, weight changes, hormone levels, sleep cycles and body temperatures.  

To some extent, it is very natural and normal to have a little less energy and need a little more sleep. It's also a time of year when seasonal celebrations centered around food, especially sweets, are prevalent throughout our culture. It is a time when our ancestors celebrated the harvest and prepared to live off their labors through the winter. It's normal to have energy and work through the summer to harvest time, then snooze and relax through the winter. In Chinese Medicine, the winter is the time of storage, gathering and reserving your energy.  While we don't fully hibernate, it turns out many other animals don't sleep straight through the winter, either. 

Since the advent of the electric light, we have been able to push ourselves further and further from our natural biorhythm. We work more hours than ever before, sleep less and never get a chance to catch up.  Most Americans are really bad at taking a vacation, even when we're lucky enough to have paid time off. A third of those who do take vacation use that time to catch up on sleep.  

We are so chronically sleep deprived, and we've pushed our biological clocks to the limits for so long, it's really no wonder that we are exhausted when we hit late fall and our bodies are demanding some down time with the season. Add to that the stress of the holidays, and depending on your history and personal situation, a lack of support, a sense of isolation, and your particular family dynamics, and it's not too surprising many of us would like to have a nice cave to hibernate in for the winter, see you in the spring!

Our bodies are trying to go one way, and our lifestyle and society is pushing us another. While taking off three months a year isn't likely a possibility for most of us, there is a lot you can do to make it easier on yourself.  

First, it's important to recognize if it's a normal response to seasonal changes and stress, or if it is Seasonal Affective Disorder/SAD, or a more serious depression or something else entirely, such as thyroid disease.  

SAD can affect women more than men, between the ages of 15-55, and your risk is higher the farther you are from the equator.  Symptoms include wanting to sleep more than normal, but still feeling tired, craving carbohydrates or sweets, difficulty concentrating, feeling more sensitive, irritable or anxious, losing interest in activities or social engagement, and physical symptoms such as aches and pains or headaches. For a diagnosis of SAD, these symptoms should have come at the same season for two years in a row, and then lifted spontaneously as the seasons changed again.  

Major depression may have some similar characteristics with SAD, but may be more severe and may not dissipate when spring comes. There may be more feelings of hopelessness, insomnia or sleeping too much, weight loss or gain, and more thoughts of death or suicide. This and other forms of depression, such as bipolar disorder, may be worse or harder to manage around the seasons, as well. 

If you're worried that you may have SAD or a form of depression, it's important to talk to your doctor, especially if your symptoms are interfering with your relationships or your ability to work or care for yourself. Other health problems may need to be ruled out. You can start with this basic protocol for some relief while working with your doctor to figure it out.

  • Allow yourself extra sleep.  If you usually need 7-8 hours of sleep, make time to get 9-10 hours.  

  • Practice good sleep hygiene. Make your bedroom as dark as possible, turn the heat down to 65 degrees, stop using screens such as phones, computers or TVs an hour before bedtime, and go to bed at the same time every night.

  • Make sure your vitamin D levels are optimal, and supplement vitamin D if it's not.

  • Use light therapy, either a bright light full spectrum light box during normal daylight hours for 30-120 minutes a day, or dawn simulation system that comes on automatically and gradually brightens to wake you up. There's a reason that most cultures have lights as a celebration at the winter solstice. Expect to feel better in about a week, but stick with the treatment until the sun takes over again.

  • Make sure you're eating well. Along with the usual treats for the holidays, it's no accident that foods that nourish seratonin, like turkey, are holiday staples. Eat with the season, choosing foods that are locally in season. It's OK to have treats, as long as your basic diet is nourishing so your blood sugar remains relatively stable throughout the day.

  • Get outside. Remember that you are a part of nature, so go experience it. Observe the changes in your neighborhood trees, plants, birds, etc. 

  • Exercise. Exercise beats pharmaceuticals in every major study of any type of depression. It's free, lifts mood and the side effects are usually an added bonus. 

  • Practice mindfulness. This can be incorporated with the exercise, for instance you could do qi gong outside daily. Or you could meditate, pray, or create a gratitude or regular journal. 

  • Address your stress. Every single point above will help support you in dealing with stress, and it's important to have good, supportive relationships. Make new friends, or carve out time to nourish your current relationships.

  • If the holidays coincide with an anniversary of a grief, or were never a particularly happy time, seek the help of a counselor.

If you're suffering with these symptoms, and finding it impossible to make these changes, or these lifestyle changes aren't enough, we have many other treatment options besides medication to help get you healthfully through the season. Give us a call at (503) 305-7762 to schedule your appointment.