Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is something I’ve struggled with most of my adult life, as did my dad. It just feels like a dark, cumbersome blanket that holds you back from a vibrant life – and yet, because it’s cold outside, you just want to wrap yourself inside it and disappear. It is bleak. Nobody seems to understand depression, much less when it is merely seasonal. It’s easier to deny the problem and hope nobody notices.
But it is real. The brain is dependent on light hitting the eye, where the photosensitive retina communicates directly to the pituitary gland. Signals from the pituitary are sent to other glands and cascade through the body to regulate mood, digestion, sleep and memory. When the days are short and dark, there just isn’t enough light to trigger the communications to other glands. Depression and fatigue result as the normal interplay of hormone messages falls into disrepair. And just about the time it becomes debilitating, Spring appears and everything miraculously returns to normal. My dad, like many people, never understood that it was light, not post-holiday letdown, that caused his winter doldrums. Knowing that it will pass with the cloud cover, though, doesn’t make it any easier. It also becomes a major drain on the body’s defenses long term.
Like so many maladies, knowing the cause leads to the cure. If I’m tired, I grant myself extra sleep. But sleeping in isn’t the answer here. It is the bright morning sun, with its higher ratio of blue rays, that is most effective for regulating the body’s rhythm. And it’s often obscured.
Food quickly becomes a factor. Less stimulation of the pituitary means digestion is impaired, which slows the system and encourages weight gain. The same stresses that slow digestion also trigger a desire for comfort foods, which further strains the already struggling system of checks and balances among the organs. Lack of sunshine depletes Vitamin D in the body, compounding the insufficiency of the (also SAD) Standard American Diet and lowering the immune response. The spiral of effects reaches far into the body’s systems.
The need for support during these days is essential. Fresh whole foods are difficult to find in the pseudo-death of winter, but they supply the life that the body needs to get through it. Fermented foods are time-honored for preserving and actually improving enzyme activity and digestion. Sprouting is an easy, uplifting hobby during the winter, and snips of whatever is growing in your windowsill can be a very nutritious finishing touch to soups, stews and casseroles just before serving.
Exercise, particularly outside during the bright mornings, helps on all fronts. Movement helps to improve mood and normalize glandular activity, as well as move toxins out and oxygen through every cell. Sunshine on any exposed skin converts to Vitamin D and boosts immune response.
Avoid wearing sunglasses during the winter to encourage as much light as possible to reach the pituitary gland, If the weather really doesn’t cooperate with providing sunshine, full spectrum lights can be a useful addition to the regular morning routine. Limit artificial light at night, whether it’s cutting out TV before bed or drawing the shades against street lights outside while you sleep, to support your body’s efforts to maintain normalcy.
In short, every little thing that you can do to maximize light and proper diet during the bleakness of winter will help to keep the SAD blues away. Those that become habit will protect you from succumbing again in future years. My worst season was cured by a camera I was given as a gift. I vowed I would take one picture a day, and the more I moved and spent time outside looking for that photo, my depression melted. Find your “camera” – whatever keeps you moving in the sunlight and seeking health – and know that you are not alone. You and I are in this together.
For further reading: https://philmaffetone.com/sun-and-brain/