A significant percentage of Americans suffer from clinical depression, but milder feelings of sadness and melancholy can strike at any time. For many, the holiday season can be a poignant trigger. And Seasonal Affective Disorder is on the rise.
It can creep up, like the slow and steady advance of the tides, or sweep suddenly from some hidden place, set loose by physical illness, heartbreak, job loss, or the passing of a loved one. Regardless of its origin, depression can take a devastating toll on every aspect of a person’s life. In the winter season, both the lack of sunlight and the cluster of holidays can catapult feelings of mild melancholy into a state of overwhelming misery and gloom. Winter is also the season of provocative Seasonal Affective Disorder, which may affect you more than you realize.
While it’s important to recognize that clinical depression should be treated by a qualified doctor or therapist, seasonal and milder forms of depression often respond well to holistic therapies.
Let there be Light
There’s no denying that the gray skies and indoor lighting that define the winter months can have a profound effect on mood. Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is a recognized mood disorder that results from prolonged lack of sunlight. People who suffer from this condition may produce excessive melatonin during this time, enough to cause incapacitating symptoms of depression. Phototherapy, commonly called light therapy, uses specially designed light boxes to imitate the light of the sun, facilitating biomedical changes within the brain that lift mood and relieve symptoms associated with SAD.
In use since the early 1980s, light therapy is now considered the standard therapy in treating SAD by many health professionals. The intensity of the light produced by light boxes is determined in LUX, a measure of the amount of light that’s received at a specific distance from a light source. Light boxes used for light therapy typically produce between 2,500 and 10,000 LUX. The intensity determines how far you should position yourself from the source and how long sessions should last. An average session lasts about 30 minutes and occurs only once a day, with morning being the optimal time for therapy. Look for light boxes from Alaska Northern Lights, and Ultralux.
Ancient medical systems and modern holistic medical practitioners recognize the inseparable and overlapping connection between mind, body, and spirit, and believe that an imbalance in any one area can affect the entire person. The subtle energies of homeopathy, aromatherapy, and flower essences work on an elemental level to balance and restore harmony to the whole person. It’s also widely recognized as having a deep impact on the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Aromatherapy utilizes various scents to alter mood. Essential oils can be applied topically, infused in bathwater, or released through candles. Scents with an uplifting effect on the psyche include bergamot, grapefruit, rosemary, frankincense, and fennel. Flower essences work by removing negative emotions on a deep and energetic level, restoring overall balance. Flower essences that help diffuse feelings of melancholy include mustard, elm, sweet chestnut, and willow. Bach Flower essences make a special combination designed to address depression called Combination No. 15. Drops can be placed directly under the tongue, mixed with water and sipped slowly, rubbed into the skin behind the ears, or applied to wrists.
Homeopathic remedies that address depression are often drawn from substances that can cause the very symptoms they are said to relieve if taken in large doses. They should be prescribed by a homeopathic practitioner, who will assess all of the features of an individual’s condition and personality to select the most appropriate remedy. Ignatia might be prescribed for depression caused by grief, while pulsatilla is often recommended for depression triggered by hormonal changes.
The Nutrition Connection
An often-overlooked component in addressing depression is nutrition. Pierre Brunschwig, M.D., is also a naturopath and a practitioner at Helios Integrated Medicine in Boulder, Colorado. He explains that evidence is mounting about the connection between depression and low levels of vitamin D, especially in cases of SAD.
“During winter months,” Brunschwig explains, “there’s less sunlight, and a tendency to stay indoors because it’s cold. Above certain latitudes, the sun’s rays begin to lose adequate energy to convert sunlight into 25-hydroxy, or vitamin D. For unknown reasons, some people are very sensitive to low levels of vitamin D, and we’re discovering that low levels within the population are very prevalent. People who have gloomy moods all year that are aggravated during winter months should be checked for low levels of D, as levels decline naturally through winter months.”
Brunschwig says that the RDA for vitamin D has risen to 800 IU per day, while doses larger than 1,000 IU should be monitored by a health professional. Rich sources of vitamin D include milk, fortified dairy products, and fish. Soy isoflavones can help to improve absorption and slow the breakdown of vitamin D. Should you choose to take your vitamin D in supplement form, look for quality brands, including Bluebonnet (which offers a vitamin D and calcium combination), at Whole Foods and other natural food stores.
Just a few short years ago, the herb St. Johns Wort was hailed as a natural cure for depression. Since then, it’s been revealed as useful in some situations, but not the miracle cure it was reputed to be. According to Brunschwig, St. Johns Wort is most effective when it’s not used in conjunction with other medications, and is not the remedy of choice for SAD.
Herbal remedies may be most useful in supporting overall health and addressing underlying conditions that can lead to feelings of depression. Siberian Ginseng, for instance, can help stabilize blood sugar, thus helping to regulate mood swings. SAM-E is an amino available as a dietary supplement that’s been proven to be very safe but is very expensive. Licorice, which can mimic the effects of cortisol, can help people who are suffering from a low adrenal function, which is often accompanied by low blood pressure.
“Cortisol is also important in regulating stress responses,” explains Brunschwig, “and stress can certainly contribute to feelings of depression.”
It’s important to purchase herbs and herbal supplements that have the word “standardized” on the label. Natural products stores offer some brands that also promise to have been made from sustainably harvested, organic herbs.
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