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Natural Ways to Conquer the Winter Blues

Dec 31, 2010 02:11PM ● By Dr. Lynne Belsky

Winter’s days of cold and decreased daylight affects many of us, with a decrease in energy and a feeling of wanting to “hibernate.” If your reaction to the change in season keeps you emotionally down, moody, or unable to function in your normal way, you may be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.

SAD is a type of depression that occurs at the same time every year. Most people experience it during the fall to winter months, while other people have symptoms that begin in spring or early summer. The good news is that there are natural therapies to help keep your mood and motivation steady.

Winter SAD symptoms start in early fall and tend to worsen as the season progresses. They include: depression, hopelessness, anxiety, loss of energy, social withdrawal, oversleeping, weight gain and difficulty concentrating and processing information
The specific cause remains unknown, but the factors that may play a role are thought to be:

•    Your  internal biological clock (circadian rhythm) is disrupted by the reduced levels of sunlight.
•    Melatonin levels can be decreased during this time. Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone that plays a role in mood and sleep.
•    Serotonin levels may also drop with reduced sunlight. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter (brain chemical) that affects mood. A drop in serotonin can lead to depression.
•    Other risk factors include being female, living far from the equator and a family history of SAD.

Since SAD can look like any depression, it is best to consult your doctor to identify it and develop a plan for treatment. There is no medical test that can diagnose SAD, so a detailed history with a physical exam is the best way to start.

Treatments are varied, and you may want to try a few changes to start feeling better. Light therapy, or phototherapy, involves sitting a few feet from a specialized light box. This mimics outdoor light, and appears to cause a change in brain chemicals linked to mood. It is easy to use and has few side effects. Start with 15 minutes a day and work up to two hours. The Mayo Clinic website at MayoClinic.com/Health/Light-Therapy/MY00195 is a good source for additional information about light box treatment options.

Lifestyle and home remedies also have been effective for many people. Some examples are:

•    Make  the most out of the sunlight in your environment. Open curtains, add skylights, trim tree branches that block sunlight. Sit in the sunniest rooms of your house or near a sunny window at work.
•    Get outside. Even on cold or cloudy days, outdoor light can help, especially within two hours of rising in the morning.
•    Exercise regularly to help relieve stress and anxiety and increase your self-esteem.

Nutritional and dietary supplements used to treat depression can also help SAD sufferers. The most effective supplements are typically St. John’s wort, melatonin and omega-3 fatty acids. Mind-body therapies that can help relieve depressive symptoms include acupuncture, yoga, meditation and massage therapy.

If possible and affordable, winter vacations to sunny places can also help alleviate the symptoms.

The above natural remedies are often enough to get you through the blue days of winter. If you find your symptoms are severe, however, you may benefit from further care, so do not hesitate to call your doctor or health practitioner.


Lynne Belsky, M.D., a concierge physician who sees patients ages 16 and up, is the owner of Living Well MD in Northbrook. For more information: Living Well MD, 1535 Lake Cook Rd, Northbrook 60062; 847-418-2030. LivingWellMD.com. See ad in the Community Resource Guide.