Dreary gray, cloudy days. Dramatic dips in temperature. Entire workdays consumed by dark drive times and little sight of the sun.
It’s a natural phenomenon of the fall/winter shift; for many, dreaded but manageable. For others, shorter daylight hours mean the beginning of a seasonal struggle, triggering an onslaught of symptoms ranging from mild (it’s cold, I don’t want to get out of bed) to severe (massive and deep depression and apathy toward activities that were once enjoyable).
Luckily for those who suffer, there is validation, a name, and a diagnosis: This condition, known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or (quite appropriately) SAD, is a type of depression that occurs during fall and winter months. SAD is believed to be caused by the reduction in sunlight during these seasons, which can disrupt the body’s natural circadian rhythm and lead to a decrease in the production of serotonin — a chemical in the brain that regulates mood.
How Can You Tell If You Are Suffering From SAD? Symptoms Include:
• Feelings of depression and hopelessness
• Loss of energy and tiredness
• Difficulty concentrating
• Changes in appetite and sleep patterns (insomnia or oversleeping or craving high-carb foods)
• Weight gain
• Social withdrawal; loss of interest in once-enjoyable activities
Unlike depression, these symptoms are exacerbated during the winter months and can become severe enough to interfere with daily life and functioning.
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, an estimated 10 million Americans suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and another 10-20% experience a milder form of the condition known as the “winter blues.”
SAD is more common for people with depression and other mental disorders.
SAD is more common in women than men, with women four times more likely to be affected. SAD is also more common in people who live further away from the equator, where there is less sunlight during the fall and winter months.
The prevalence of SAD varies by age. The highest rates occur in young adults and the lowest rates occur in children and older adults. SAD is also more common in people with a family history of depression, bipolar disorder, or SAD, and people with pre-existing mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety.
Note: The above statistics are based on self-reported cases; the actual number of people affected by SAD may be higher as many people with the disorder may not seek help or may not be diagnosed.
SAD: A Force Of Nature?
“Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real medical diagnosis, and it affects people here in the Ohio Valley,” said National Weather Service meteorologist John Gordon. “SAD is a type of depression that is related to seasonal changes. If you’re like most people with SAD, the cold, cloudy winter months sap your energy and make you feel moody.”
“Lack of sunshine is a primary driver of SAD,” continues Gordon. “In the U.S., SAD prevalence ranges from 9.7% in New Hampshire to 1.4% in Florida. The reduced level of sunlight in the fall and winter months may affect an individual’s serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects mood; lower levels of serotonin have been shown to be linked to depression. Brain scans have shown that people who had seasonal depression in the winter had higher levels of a serotonin transporter protein that removed serotonin than in individuals who did not have seasonal depression.”
Chase The Blues Away
The good news is that SAD is a treatable condition. With the right care and support, it is possible to manage the symptoms of SAD to improve overall well being. Below are tips, tactics and advice from local experts to help readers affected by SAD to manage its symptoms and side effects.
Let The Sun Shine!
“The development of Seasonal Affective Disorder is the result of shorter days and less exposure to sunlight,” said Shelly Werts, LCSW, owner and lead mental health therapist at Lotus Counseling and Wellness Center. “Sunlight is important for the development of serotonin, which boosts mood, and melatonin, which helps to induce sleep. A reduction in sunlight reduces the level of both serotonin and melatonin, resulting in depressive symptoms and insomnia. Despite the cold of winter, it is still important to obtain some amount of sunlight to stave off Seasonal Affective Disorder.”
“Soak up as much sunshine as possible,” echoes Gordon. “Even if it’s cold and sunny, put on a bunch of layers and get outside…you will feel better!”
Go Toward the (Happy) Light
Werts recommends the use of a full spectrum light box — often referred to as the “happy” light — to combat SAD; this is particularly helpful if you cannot get outside much during daylight hours. The light box mimics natural outdoor light and covers the electromagnetic spectrum from infrared to near violet, covering all wavelengths that are useful to plant or animal life. It can help regulate the body’s circadian rhythm and improve mood. For best results, sit in front of the box for 30 minutes to an hour each day. Several types of light boxes are available online.
Take Your Vitamin D (If You Can’t Get It From Nature)
“In my years of doing body therapy and energy therapy, one of the issues everyone is impacted by is Seasonal Affective Disorder,” said Timothy Mast, an integrative therapist who practices healing techniques using a variety of modalities. “ We miss our sunshine during the winter and the Vitamin D the sun assists the body in producing. Having studied the immune system for over two decades, Vitamin D is very key for one’s overall health and immune system function.”
Become One With the Earth
EMF grounding, also known as “earthing,” is the practice of connecting to the Earth’s natural electric charge by walking barefoot on the ground or using a device that allows for contact with the Earth’s surface. Some people believe that EMF grounding can help to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder by reducing inflammation and improving circulation, which can improve overall physical well-being and reduce feelings of fatigue — common symptoms of SAD. Additionally, studies have also shown that contact with the earth’s surface can have a positive impact on the body’s circadian rhythm and melatonin production, which helps to regulate sleep and improve mood.
“Grounding is an emerging awareness field,” said Mast. “ More studies are showing that our connection to the Earth is very important, with one of the most important benefits being reduction of inflammation. We run around disconnected in our rubber-soled shoes. Rubber is a natural insulator. Prior to the 1900s, we did not have this issue, and many people went around barefoot. We also drive around in cars with rubber tires; once again disconnecting us from the Earth, but also protecting us from lightning. We need to spend more time barefoot and in nature.”
“There are frequencies which the Earth produces, known as the Schumann frequencies (there are eight in total), which influence one’s brain. If one is not connected with the Earth, these frequencies will not be as helpful.”
Explore The Metaphysical
Many people believe that there are metaphysical or spiritual impacts of the changing seasons on SAD. Some people may find that they are more in tune with their emotions and spirituality during the fall and winter. They may also find that they are more introspective or reflective during this time. Practicing gratitude, engaging in self-care (meditation, journaling and yoga) and utilizing visualization techniques can help to shift mood and perspective, in addition to drawing awareness to thoughts and emotions. Energy healing, such as reiki or chakra healing, can help to balance and align the body’s energy, reducing feelings of depression and boosting positive feelings.
Get A Little Salty
Halotherapy, also known as “salt therapy,” involves inhaling salt particles in a controlled environment, such as a salt cave or a salt room. It has been shown to help with depression by reducing inflammation in the lungs and airways, which in turn can improve respiratory function and overall well-being. Some studies have suggested that spending time in a salt cave may also reduce stress, anxiety and sleep disorders.
Halotherapy is also said to alleviate conditions such as COPD, asthma, allergies, sinusitis, congestion, cystic fibrosis and ear infections. What’s more, it’s also great for the skin, as the body absorbs the dry salt particles distributed by the halogenerator and helps the skin to regenerate and heal faster. Salt cave sessions at Louisville Salt Cave are accompanied by soft, meditative music (or, sometimes, a guided meditation) as visitors sit back in a zero-gravity chair. This time is for you – you can pray, meditate or even fall asleep.
Eat Your Way to Happy
People with SAD may experience changes in appetite, such as overeating or loss of appetite, which can lead to weight gain or weight loss. It’s important to be mindful of these changes and work to maintain a healthy diet and exercise routine. Eating a well-balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and lean protein can help improve overall physical and mental health.
Nutrition plays an important role in managing the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder. A well-balanced diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables and lean protein can help improve overall physical and mental health, which can in turn help reduce the symptoms of SAD.
Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D and folate have been shown to be particularly important for mood regulation and may be beneficial for people suffering from SAD. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in foods such as fatty fish, nuts and seeds are important for brain health and have been shown to reduce inflammation and improve mood. Vitamin D — which can be obtained naturally from sunlight or through foods such as fatty fish, eggs and fortified milk — has been linked to a reduction in depression symptoms. Finally, folate (found in leafy greens, nuts and legumes) plays an important role in the production of serotonin.
Work It Out!
Regular exercise can help boost mood, reduce stress and improve sleep. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking or cycling, on most days of the week.
“Since most people choose not to or cannot run off to somewhere sunny in the winter, one is best to then choose forms of therapy or body movement that keep their energy able to flow and move well,” said Mast. “Some of those things are massage therapy, reiki, pranic healing, qi gong, tai chi, dancing, breathing exercises, yoga, craniosacral therapy and others.”
Practicing yoga can help with Seasonal Affective Disorder by addressing its physical, mental and emotional impacts. It can help to increase physical flexibility and strength, improving overall well-being and reducing feelings of fatigue — common symptoms of SAD. It can also help to reduce stress and anxiety and improve mood and focus. Finally, practicing yoga can help to increase self-awareness, self-acceptance and self-compassion, improving an individual’s ability to cope with difficult emotions and negative thoughts.
Certain yoga practices, such as pranayama and meditation, can also aid in regulating the nervous system and promote feelings of relaxation and calmness.
“The practice of yoga helps to calm the mind and clear the path to our true nature, our silent center,” said Sabine Gaona, owner of The Inner Warrior, a community- funded and supported yoga studio offering donation-based classes. Gaona operates the studio with her daughter Gabriella. “Sometimes, the hardest part is showing up for yoga class,” said Gaona. “But when you do and you’re done, the world seems sunnier…every single time. When the days are short and the nights are long, there is nothing more healing than yoga in a beautiful space together with community.”
Hang With Your Peeps
Spending time with friends and family and participating in social activities can help reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness, which are common symptoms of SAD. Social support can provide a sense of connection and belonging. Being around other people also provides opportunities for distraction and engagement, taking the focus off negative thoughts and feelings. Social activities, such as joining a support group or club, can provide a sense of purpose and fulfillment. Additionally, sharing feelings and experiences with others who can understand what you’re going through can be a valuable way to cope with the challenges of SAD.
Live Better Through Chemistry
Antidepressant medication can also be helpful in managing SAD; selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can help to alleviate symptoms of depression. It is important to consult a doctor or mental health professional if you are experiencing symptoms of SAD and they are impacting your daily life. Additionally, some studies have suggested that the use of light therapy in combination with medication can also be an effective treatment option.
Experiment With Essential Oils
Evidence suggests essential oils can have a beneficial effect on depression and have been used as a complementary treatment for depression and anxiety.* Oils such as lavender, bergamot and rose have been found to have a calming and relaxing effect, which can help to reduce these symptoms; inhaling them can activate the limbic system — the part of the brain that controls emotions — which can lead to changes in mood. Peppermint, alternately, can provide an invigorating impact.
Aromatherapist Christine Mikel, owner of Holistic Health, Sage’s Botanicals and HarrysBar.online, customizes therapies based on an individual’s specific needs.
“We look into the uniqueness of each person to align the correct plants in the form of essential oils, teas and niche perfumes to aid an individual. Where essential oils are concerned, it is important to have basic knowledge of safe use. Anyone is welcome to reach out with questions, and we will do our best to provide insight. For me personally, I love bergamot; many go for any of the oranges,” said Mikel.
*Essential oils should be used with caution, as some can be toxic when ingested or used in high concentrations.
Try Integrative Chiropractic Care
Chiropractic care is a form of alternative medicine that focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of neuromuscular disorders. Regular chiropractic adjustments can help alleviate symptoms of depression by improving nervous system function, which helps to improve mood. They can also reduce stress levels by promoting relaxation and reduce tension in the muscles, as well as improve sleep quality.
“The ‘hands-on approach’ of chiropractic care offers patients a way to reduce stress and sensitivity,” said Dr. Eric Epstein, DC, CCP, owner of integrative chiropractic care practice Epstein Chiropractic and Wellness. “The parasympathetic nervous system is correlated with rest, digestion and repair. It is well known that SAD is a major stressor that interferes with sleep and other things that increase the sympathetic ‘fight or flight’ stress response. Medicine, exercise and talk therapy can’t do it all; none of these therapies are standalone. A person has to build their team of assistants. The goal is to reduce fight or flight stress and increase the body’s ability to rest, digest and repair.”
“I have worked with people that have seasonal affective disorder. It’s one of the challenges we have when there is so much darkness. The body produces a great deal more melatonin — a neurotransmitter produced by the pineal gland which initiates the sleep cycle. When either too much melatonin is released or consumed in a supplement, the unfortunate side effect can be depression. Because we humans are less resilient since the onset of the pandemic the effects of SAD appear worse. It’s showing up in every chronic ailment from which people suffer.”
“We are seeing so many more strokes and heart attacks. The more stressors that are piled upon us, the more resilient we need to be. In my opinion, the solution is not to find the medication that will help. SAD is not a deficiency of drugs; it is a deficiency of the body’s ability to rebound when it’s exposed to stress and the capacity to rebound. My job is to improve resilience where I can.”
Ask For Help
If you suspect you may have SAD, talk with your doctor or a mental health professional to help you determine the best course of treatment for you. With the right treatment and support, it is possible to manage the symptoms of SAD.
In the event seasonal sadness or symptoms of depression seem or become unmanageable, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988, or text GO to 741741 to reach a trained crisis counselor through Crisis Text Line, a global not-for-profit organization. The 24/7 service is free and confidential. •
Integrative Therapies by Timothy Mast
Integrative therapies, sound therapy/crystal bowl meditation,
The Inner Warrior
This donation-based studio is completely community-funded and supported; 100% of donations go directly toward providing the donation-based classes.
600 Distillery Commons, Suite 250
Louisville, KY 40206
Holistic Health, Sage’s Botanicals and
1622 Story Ave.
Louisville, KY 40206
Shopping by appointment
Louisville Salt Cave
9800 Shelbyville Rd.
Louisville, KY 40223
Epstein Chiropractic and Wellness
Dr. Eric Epstein, DC, CCP
1987 Brownsboro Rd., 40206
Lotus Counseling and Wellness Center
Shelly Werts, LCSW; Werts provides mental health counseling, Ayurvedic health coaching, yoga teaching, yoni steam facilitation, and reiki. She is also a women’s empowerment facilitator, artist, writer and U.S. Navy veteran. Lotus also offers massage therapy, workshops related to health and healing, monthly women’s circles, a yearly women’s wellness program and tarot guidance.
8701 Old Bardstown Rd.
Louisville, KY 40291
Rainbow Blossom has several locations in Louisville and an additional store in Southern Indiana.
3738 Lexington Rd.
Louisville, KY 40207
Meridian Acupuncture & Herbal Medicine
311 Wallace Ave.
Louisville, KY 40207
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