By Dee Atkinson, FNIMH
The new year is here and after the celebrations, for some, January depression has now really hit home. The long winter nights can feel like they will never end and some days it’s difficult to get from the corner shop back to the house without getting rained on or chilled to the bone.
Whilst some people enjoy the dark, cosy evenings spent sitting around a glowing fire, others find it signifies a winter long depression which in the mildest cases makes them miserable and out of sorts and, in the worst cases, causes a major depression.
Seasonally Affected Disorder (SAD) is thought to affect over two million people in the UK and the majority of sufferers are women. A further eight million people are thought to be mildly affected by seasonal light changes.
The symptoms can include a craving for carbohydrates and sweet foods, tiredness, lethargy and a marked decrease in sex drive. Many patients find their work suffering and some end up on antidepressants.
According to some researchers the cause is lack of sunlight. The remedy, they say, is to mimic the length of a bright summer day by using ultra violet light with the same spectrum as the sun but which doesn’t tan your skin. Normal artificial light is of no benefit.
The answer to the problem lies with the pineal gland. This tiny gland, buried deep within the brain, appears to intercept light messages sent to the brain via the optic nerve. The pineal gland secretes melatonin, a hormone thought to play a major role in our sleep patterns, moods, emotional responses and reproductive cycles. Levels of melatonin rise at night and subside at dawn.
The use of electric lights has meant that we no longer go to bed with sunset and get up with sunrise – our seasonal rhythms have lost their natural patterns.
Full spectrum lights are being used by an increasing number of sufferers with remarkable results. Experiments have shown that exposure for as little as two to three hours per day can make a difference. Some hospitals have started using the lights to treat patients with severe seasonal depression and an increasing number of businesses are installing lights in offices.
S.A.D. sufferers should try to spend as much time as possible outside in the brightest part of the day – about thirty minutes a day is needed to have an effect. Allow as much natural light as possible into your bedroom and on waking try to spend some time near the window getting as much light as possible. Full spectrum light bulbs are available, as are full spectrum fluorescent strips. Installing them in the home or work place could make a big difference.
Herbalists have known about SAD for centuries and have always treated it with a herb called St John’s Wort (available over the counter). Known traditionally as the “sunshine herb” it will lift the mood in mild to moderate depression. Available in capsule or liquid form, it needs to be taken for at least a couple of weeks before the full benefit is felt (or start taking it early in the season). Caution: There are several contra-indications with this herb, so chat with a herbalist before using it
Back in the 1860s, Duncan Napier created his Nerve Debility Tonic for “when the whole world seems dull, and you just want to sit down and cry, when the stresses and strains of modern living get on top of you”. I still prescribe this very same tonic in my clinic for stress and anxiety, although it now goes by the name Skullcap, Oat and Passionflower.
Another way to help yourself beat the blues in winter is to stock up on oats as they support and nourish the nervous system. Used for centuries as a tonic and a restorative, oats were soaked in water, simmered for a few minutes and then the liquid was strained off and drunk. This could sound like an old wives tale if it were not for the fact that a number of studies have proven the beneficial effects of oats. Athletes found that an oat based diet for three weeks improved both their stamina and performance. Oat (Avena sativa) Tincture and Oat Juice is now widely used by herbalists to treat a wide range of stress and anxiety problems.
So, start your day with a bowl of porridge and take it from there…