SAD: What’s going on and How do I get out?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) feels like a dark, cumbersome blanket that holds you back from life – and yet you just want to wrap yourself inside it and disappear.

Port Aransas (personal collection)

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/ 

 

 

The Importance of Sleep

Work must be balanced by proper sleep for the body to stay well and continue to be useful.

Arianna Huffington passed out at her desk from exhaustion in 2007, and has made the topic of sleep almost a side business.  Jeff Bezos has stated that eight hours of sleep is a priority to him.  Bill Gates says he can’t think clearly if he isn’t well rested. The truth of the matter is, sleep is essential to everyone’s success.

Every movement of the body requires the contraction of one muscle while relaxing another. And any muscle contracted will fatigue and finally fail if the movement is not reversed to relaxation. In effect, there’s a give and take to any action. When the bicep engages, the triceps must disengage. But the biceps must also be relaxed at some point so the triceps can engage. Work must be balanced by sleep in order for the body to function on all levels.

On any average workday, whether at the office or chasing toddlers, multiple demands are thrown at you. The body interprets these challenges, or even the thought of them, as threats and signals the adrenal glands to turn all “essential to survival” functions to high and shut down everything else. Veins dilate for better circulation, blood pressure and heart rate increase, and the immune system is suppressed. Digestion and detoxification cease, and intestinal organs shut down as blood is shunted to the muscles and brain. All systems are readied for encounters with stray tigers, impromptu meetings with the boss, or errant children falling off the counter.

At the end of the day, stresses should fade with the evening sun and the lights should go out. Heart rate and blood pressure reduce to minimal, metabolism slows and muscles relax while the entire digestive tract goes into high gear. The liver begins cleaning up toxins and waste from the day’s activities and the intestines move them out to the curb.  The immune system is given free rein and the body goes into full recovery and rebuilding mode.

This is the balance of work and rest, contract and relax, that the body demands for health. A full day’s work is met with a full night’s sleep.

When sleep is pushed off, however, systems falter. Caffeine or sugar stimulants used to get past the hump aggravate the already increased blood pressure and add load to the slowed digestion and detoxification systems. Toxins begin seeping into the bloodstream, where they can create brain fog and poor judgment. As sleep is delayed, or cut short, fewer nutrients are assimilated, organs aren’t given proper time to clean house and muscles can’t rebuild. The body isn’t given the resources it needs.

The sleep deprived person is giving all he’s got, with no influx of time to heal. You know you can’t hold a push-up for more than a few minutes; likewise, your body will collapse without rest. Sleep is a necessary component of the healthy lifestyle.

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The basics of staying healthy when everybody is sick

Illness occurs, partly from bad salsa, but primarily because of the poor state of the body at large.

Everybody has something right now. It’s flu season, cold season, and basic communicative crud season. Those who aren’t sick are disinfecting like crazy, trying to keep from getting it all.

It seems like a good idea, but fighting to keep every germ away or dead is not overly effective. Honestly, if hanging hand sanitizer amulets around every child’s neck and every stroller handle were a real solution, why does illness still plague us?

The average person carries 39 trillion bacteria – for reference, there are about 30 trillion human body cells – and yet somehow most of us stay resoundingly healthy. There’s something else going on here than the stray dirty germ.

Susceptibility to disease has more to do with the strength of the person than the amount or virility of the attacking germs. The body needs bacteria for digestion and neutralizing invaders. Most of the bacteria we fear are everyday residents of our intestinal tract, essential to proper digestion and assimilation, which have just gotten out of balance.

Balance is key.  Just like a muscle must contract one side while relaxing the other, intestinal flora must have an equilibrium of forces. Germs are not terrorists that run amok under cover of anonymity until bombing an unsuspecting organ. If we seek to eradicate any germ of this sort, we may avert disaster to that organ, but we are simultaneously allowing that organ to become weak in its defenselessness.

The body is equipped with detoxification systems and an immune system to keep the person well. As long as those systems are functioning properly, disease is not  really a worry. Bacteria on unwashed vegetables are immobilized and discarded. Viruses are identified by the immune system, which then adapts to the current threat to appropriately overcome it.

But if the liver or kidneys are overworked by a season of eating rich desserts and overindulging in alcohol, the body has less ability to detoxify a bad batch of salsa.  Add some stress to those holidays, and the body’s pH level actually turns acidic – which makes a much more hospitable environment for germs to take root. The body has become a Petri dish of sorts, an acidic environment replete with sugar to feed the quickly multiplying intruders while the systems designed to keep this at bay are buried in work, unable to keep up. Illness occurs, partly from the bad salsa, but primarily  because of the poor state of the body at large.

This is where many believe that antibiotics are necessary. While there is certainly a place for emergency medicine and acute care, I like to prevent using them if possible. Antibiotics kill good antibodies as well as the invading bacteria. In essence, antibiotics work on the premise that once everybody on the battlefield is dead, the war is over. The patient goes home. But the next day, he comes in contact with another germ. Only now there’s nobody guarding the fort. He is completely undefended from invaders, and the inhabitants will be pillaged without another infusion of antibiotics. Anybody who’s had a toddler suffer 10-12 earaches in a year has seen this. It’s not rare.

So how do you stay well and promote wellness? Let yourself ride the next little cold. Don’t run to the doctor for antibiotics to get rid of the discomfort of the war within. Each time your body is allowed to run its course and triumph over the minor stuff, it gets stronger and there are fewer bouts with big league illnesses. Probiotics, either in capsule form or in naturally fermented foods, are the best way to rebuild the body’s defenses after a round of antibiotics. They are also helpful pre-season strategy, too, to build up the body’s strength before flu season or traveling.

Staying healthy is a combined effort. Proper handwashing keeps intruders at bay, and proper nutrition keeps the defensive lines strong. The body is a living organism, capable of adapting to new invaders and becoming stronger with each test of its abilities. Don’t give the bad guys the upper hand by submitting to fear.

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