Seasonal Affective Disorder: A Holistic Approach
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression caused by the onset of winter: the short, cold, dark days disrupt our biological clocks, drain our energy, and leave us feeling moody, lethargic, and withdrawn.
SAD is a pretty common condition for those of us who live far enough from the equator to experience four seasons, and it can be especially tough to deal with if you work outdoors for a living.
It’s natural to feel blue during this time of year. As a species who arose in sub-Saharan Africa, we are simply not well equipped to handle winter, physiologically, mentally, or emotionally.
Imagine the first band of nomadic humans to cross over into the European continent and experience winter for the first time in human history: they must have been horrified as they witnessed the days getting shorter, plant life around them withering and decaying, and the sun fading behind the ever-gray sky. They must have believed that the world was ending! If that’s not grounds for depression, then I don’t know what is.
Causes and Symptoms
The onset of seasonal affective disorder is triggered by the reduced level of sunlight that we experience during the winter months. This disrupts a person’s circadian rhythm and cause a drop in levels of serotonin and melatonin, two brain chemicals that regulate sleep patterns and mood. When combined with a deficiency in vitamin D from lack of sun exposure, we generally end up dealing with some combination of the following symptoms:
- Tiredness, low energy
- Appetite change – cravings for high-carb foods
- Weight gain
- Social withdrawal
Personally, I experience pretty much all of these symptoms from December through February, tapering off around the spring equinox in March as the sun begins to return and activity in the garden picks up again.
(I should note at this point that I am not a doctor, and I am in no way professionally qualified to diagnose or treat illnesses. I write from personal experience, observation, and amateur research, and I offer my advice as an avowed layperson. Use your own discretion.)
Fortunately, it’s simple to treat the symptoms of the winter blues, and it doesn’t require costly doctor visits, pharmaceutical drugs, or artificial-light therapies (which I found to be worthless – kind of like hothouse tomatoes in January, you just can't replace the real thing). My six-point holistic treatment plan aims to minimize the effects of SAD by approaching it from all directions: physical, mental, and emotional.
1. Maximize sun exposure
First, I maximize sun exposure as best as I can. Lack of sunlight is one of the main reasons why we feel so sluggish this time of year. Sunlight provides us with vitamin D, which helps to regulate our mood, appetite, and weight, among many other things.
Gray skies and short days throw our body’s natural rhythms out of balance, with the result being that our sleeping and eating patterns become disrupted. It’s not easy to soak up much sunshine through the winter months where I live, but I do my best to plan outdoor activities on days when sunny skies are forecasted.
2. Exercise daily
And even if it’s not especially bright outside, I still try to exercise daily through the winter. For the other nine months of the year I am very physically active in my work as a farmer, and it’s important for me to keep up some level of activity even after the manual labor outside is finished for the year. Research has shown again and again that daily physical exertion is critical for regulating mood, appetite, and sleeping patterns—not to mention overall wellness.
3. Maintain a steady schedule
Speaking of patterns: my third point is to maintain a steady schedule of eating and sleeping every day. If you consistently eat, sleep, and wake up at the same times each day, then your body comes to recognize your patterns and release hormones in anticipation. That’s why you always start to feel hungry right before your lunch break—your stomach knows just as well as you do that food is coming soon, and it wants to be prepared. Staying consistent in your habits can help your body’s natural regulators to keep up their end of the bargain.
4. Record your thoughts
As for the emotional side of things, I think it’s a great idea to record your thoughts regularly—whether you’re depressed or not, really, but especially during this time of year. Taking the time to actually write out how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking about will help you to “flesh out” those vague ideas bouncing around in your mind that sometimes cause stress, anxiety, or unease.
Writing down your thoughts and feelings is also a surefire method for putting them to rest, so to speak, so that you can rest with a clear mind. It’s also helpful to be able to look back on the things you’ve written, whether in past months or past years, to see how you’ve dealt with and overcome issues that have arisen in your life. In that sense, it’s a great confidence booster and means of assurance.
5. Celebrate with community
Despite being a pretty introverted person, I know that it’s extra important for me to socialize and celebrate during this time of year. Social withdrawal is an example of a positive feedback loop: the more you withdraw, the more isolated you feel, and so you withdraw even further.
Rather than feeling blue about the state of the weather outside, we can choose to celebrate the season for what it is with friends and family. Pre-Judaic human traditions related to seasonal changes, the winter solstice and the new year are as old as time itself, and I think they’re a great way to bring people of different faiths and beliefs together for one common celebration. Nothing has the potential to elevate your mood quite like a meaningful social gathering. Embrace the season in good company!
6. Supplement melatonin and vitamin D
Finally, when all else fails, we should have a backup plan to supplement melatonin and vitamin D. Supplemental melatonin is an incredibly safe and effective sleep aid, but should be taken in moderation because your body can become dependent on it if you regularly rely on it to get to sleep.
I don’t have much faith in vitamin supplements, but thankfully nutritional vitamin D is abundant in pasture-raised meats and eggs, so I incorporate as much of these foods into my diet as I can through the winter months.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my fondness for mood-enhancers like caffeine and cannabis, but these should only be used with a holistic plan such as what I’ve outlined above—not in place of it.
Taken as a whole, this six-point plan ought to enable anyone to combat the ill effects of seasonal affective disorder and make the most of these dreary months ahead. I hope you find it useful!
A Note On Clinical Depression
Seasonal affective disorder has the potential to mimic bona fide clinical depression, though it is generally much less severe in all of its symptoms. If you believe that your depression runs deeper than the seasons, then I must advise you to seek professional guidance in managing your illness. Major depression is the leading cause of disability among otherwise able-bodied adults in our era, and it is not to be trifled with. There are health professionals in your area who can offer meaningful treatment – not just pharmaceutical drugs. But it’s up to you to seek them out.