December’s long nights and holidays are here, which may mean stress and depression for many. And some may have worsening symptoms, which is called seasonal affective disorder or SAD. This depression occurs only during the winter months, when the low amounts of sunlight affect circadian rhythms and lead to depression, which can often be severe. If you’re worried that it’s serious clinical depression, discuss it with your doctor.
Not everyone who feels down needs to be given prescription medicine. Exercise is a great aid to lift many people out of their winter blues, and it also helps to manage stress. It usually takes at least three weeks of moderate exercising and at least three hours total each week before your brain’s chemistry starts to improve.
The first-line treatment for SAD is often light therapy, which is daily treatment with a bright light box or full-spectrum light bulb. This helps to readjust your circadian rhythms to a more “summery” state and can easily be set up at home.
Many medicines are helpful for depression, both via prescription or over-the-counter (OTC). There are a couple of natural supplements recommended as “likely effective and safe” by my favorite herbal website, the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database (http://naturaldatabase.therapeuticresearch.com).
St. Johns wort acts as a low-dose OTC version of prescription Prozac-type
pills. It works well for mild depression, but it isn’t a miracle cure and it is difficult to guarantee its quality.
SAMe is another natural supplement (also used for arthritis) which has some evidence for helping mild depression. It is expensive though, and there are quality issues with different brands, as well as some side effects.
Some evidence exists that fish oil’s ingredients of omega-3 fatty acids, especially the EPA part, is effective in combatting depression. But apparently doses need to be high (3 grams or more), and it is best taken with a prescribed antidepressant to boost its effect. Omega-3 has other positive health benefits for most age groups, including for children, and the side effects are minimal.
Everyone’s vitamin D levels are lower in the winter, but there isn’t much research to support it as an antidepressant. However, most people, including children, should already be taking daily doses of vitamin D in the winter to decrease colds and flu.
My bottom line: the best way to prevent the winter blues is to stay active and maintain a healthy diet. Consider some home therapies and supplements, but if you feel you need more help, please do not hesitate to contact your family doctor or seek a counselor. We’re here to help!