For several billion years, our earth has rotated around the sun in a similar fashion that it does today. Each geological area experiences seasons in some manner, and life has learned to adapt to Mother Nature for survival. Some techniques are truly for survival, and some are more for convenience. Snakes, bears, ground hogs, bees, bats and chipmunks, to name just a few hibernate for the harsh winters. From an early age I learned about hibernation from our pet Skunk. Blossom loved and begged for ice cream, more ravenously right before the late fall. She would disappear somewhere in the lost recesses of the basement behind the stored wooden screens until spring time. It was rather a joyous time to hear that familiar scritch-scratch on the landing door, followed by a banging if we did not get there in her desired time. We knew that spring was close when Blossom reappeared. And yes, her scent sacks had been removed.
Maybe all the hibernating animals have the right idea. They sleep through all the muck, yuck, joint swelling damp coldness and grumpiness of the winter months. But, well, we as humans have not ever been able to do this, although I have several friends that seem to mimic this behavior.
All life forms, humans included, are basically chemical factories. Anything we eat, breath, touch or come in contact with in any manner will affect us in some biological way. The food we eat gets converted to simple sugars for our body fuels. We need vitamins, minerals, trace elements and electrolytes to make our cells function. Our bodies are finely tuned living matters that all make up us as species and as individuals. What happens when we do not get what our body needs? It is clear to see, just as with our automobile, if we do not properly maintain, the results can be devastating. If we do not refill the gas tank in our automobile, the immediate result is the motor will cease to run, in fact it may not even start. Our bodies are the same, no food or water and we do not function. The fact is we will die. If we do not properly maintain the other parts of the automobile, then it will not work the way we want it to, and can eventually cause the demise of the car or truck in its entirety although the engine may still run. Our bodies need these vitamins, minerals, trace elements and electrolytes to properly function, just as our car need oils, greases, fuels and other fluids. Fortunately our bodies can absorb and actually produce some of these extra things we need from our food or the environment. If we do not get what we need, there is a cost to how our bodies function. It is truly a chemical balancing act.
Seasonal Affective Disorder, SAD, is a medical condition experienced by many. We are not entirely sure of the causes, but for those who experience this during the winter months realize it is a real problem. One theory is the shorter daylight hours. Lack of natural sunlight reduces your body’s serotonin and melatonin levels. Both of these brain chemical regulate mood, and the later also regulates sleep. It is very easy to understand the relationship between lack of natural light and overall mental health and even depression. Among those most affected are young females that have a family history of depression and live in an area with longer winters, i.e., farther from the equator.
If someone is SAD, there a variety of helpful tips. First and foremost, this author recommends understanding the cause. Like any medical condition, once a person understands the potential cause(s) then acceptance or treatment is much easier. Education is essential to treatment. If the cause is lack of sunlight, then get as much natural exposure in the winter months as possible. Natural sunlight is the best. Do not hibernate in a dark and dreary house. Some people have benefits from phototherapy, exposure to artificial sunlight, but please check with a professional health care person before attempting this whereas these may not be safe for home use. Being social and visiting with friends can be beneficial. Exercise, proper relaxation and getting plenty of sleep should also be considered. There are medications that can be very useful as well if needed.
Since the lack of daylight hours is strongly associated with SAD, then tricking the body into an earlier sunrise is a reasonable thought. Installing a special light that turns on dimly several hours before actual sunrise and gets brighter until your designated getting up time mimics an earlier sunrise thus may benefit your natural sleep cycle. Farmers have used this trick to increase egg production in the winter months for generations. An alternative is to sit in front of a bright light for thirty minutes to two hours a day. This is generally a special form of a fluorescent light that is brighter than normal indoor light, but not as bright as natural sunlight. Use extreme caution for those that have problems with this form of wave length. One should not use sun-tanning lights. As always, please consult your Doctor for medical advice, not just an ad on the computer.
Exercise appears to be another beneficial treatment. Many people find relief of symptoms from physical activities ranging from moderate exertion such as brisk walks and swimming to actual muscle weight training several times a week. Not only does this help with the SAD symptoms, it will help burn off those extra calories form the sought after carbs that SAD people seem to crave. We know the cardiovascular benefits are high as well. Again, check with your medical professional.
Melatonin is a natural hormone that our body uses to regulate its internal clock. Many people find relief by taking the supplements that are available in most pharmacies. The actual dosage needed may vary greatly from person to person, so before taking this one you should check with a health care professional.
Vitamin D is probably the most important supplement to discuss in regards to SAD. Vitamin D2 and D3 are fat soluble vitamins that regulate the absorption of Calcium and Phosphorous. This helps our immune systems to function properly and is important in bone health as well as maintenance of heart, muscle and brain health. Lack of vitamin D is associated with depression. Vitamin D2 is found in our food, while vitamin D3 is produced by the body from exposure to sunlight. Since winter months have less sunlight, it is safe to assume that less exposure could produce less vitamin D3, thus at least contributing to the cause of SAD and resulting in the need for a vitamin D supplements of some sort.
Talking to a health care professional such as your Pharmacist is a good start in understanding and treating SAD. The treatments listed above may be all that is needed, but further help may be beneficial. A mental therapist may be able to suggest some forms of relaxation techniques or meditation practices that could help. Your medical doctor may suggest a prescribed anti-depressant for the months that are the worst. If you or someone you know suffer from SAD, please at least visit with a professional. There are many options for help.
Maybe bears and skunks have the best ideas. Eat as much salmon and ice cream as possible then sleep for three or four months. Blossom always seemed happy when she reappeared scratching at the door in the spring. Until I figure a way to make that work, I will continue to spend as much time outside in the winter as I can. Gardening is not just for the summer anymore. Find ways to laugh and enjoy life! And for your own sake, DO NOT hibernate!
Dr. Matt Mallinson, PD, R.Ph.
Photo Credit –Unsplash/Ben White