December’s long nights are here, and while our holiday preparations can be exciting, many people feel stressed and depressed during these long winter months. Some people who tend towards depression may have worse symptoms; others have what is called “seasonal affective disorder”, or SAD. This depression occurs during the winter months, where the low amounts of sunlight affect their circadian rhythms and cause depression, which can often be severe.
We all feel blue from time to time, but how can you tell if it’s more clinical depression? You can answer a couple questions we doctors may ask you as a screening test:
- “During the past month, have you often been bothered by feeling down, depressed, or hopeless?”
- “During the past month, have you often been bothered by having little interest or pleasure in doing things?”
If you answered “yes” to either question, you may have clinical depression and should discuss this with your doctor.
Not everyone who feels down needs to be given prescription medicines. Exercise is a great aid to lift many people out of their winter blues, and it also helps to manage stress. But you don’t get this mood boost from one workout; usually it takes at least 3 weeks of moderate exercising at least 2 hours total each week before your brain’s chemistry starts to improve.
The first-line treatment for SAD often is light therapy, where the person gets daily treatments in a room with a bright light box. This hellps to readjust your circadian rhythms to a more “summery” state.
Don’t forget that counseling, especially specific types such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help many people with all ranges of depression. Being depressed is not a failure! If you feel you need help, please seek it from your family doctor or a counselor.
There are also a couple natural supplements which are considered by my favorite herbal website, the Natural Medicines Database, to be “likely effective and safe”. These two herbs are SAMe and St Johns wort.
St Johns wort has the most research of all natural products for depression, and it basically acts as a low-dose OTC version of prescription Prozac-type pills. It does work well for mild depression, but it isn’t a miracle cure, and it has similar side effects as the Prozac-type medicines. Plus, it interacts with some medicines such as birth control pills and coumadin. And it’s also difficult to guarantee that your pill has the proper amount of active ingredient.
SAMe is another natural supplement (also used for arthritis) which has some evidence for helping mild depression. But it is expensive, and there are quality issues with different brands, as well as some side effects you would need to first research.
Some evidence exists for fish oil’s ingredients of omega 3 fatty acids, especially the EPA part. But the doses apparently need to be high (3 grams or more), and it’s best taken along with a prescription antidepressant to boost the effect. But I also feel that omega-3 hasmultiple other positive health benefits for most age groups, including for children, and the side effects are minimal.
What about vitamin D? Everyone’s vitamin D levels are lower in the winter due to lack of vitamin D-creating sunlight on our skin. But there isn’t much research to support taking this as a antidepression supplement. However, most people, including children, should already be taking daily doses of vitamin D in the winter for a myriad of other reasons, including decreasing colds and flu.
Many people with depression and SAD do eventually need the more traditional prescription pills such as Prozac, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that. Again, it’s not a failure on your part; depression for many is a genetic issue, and some need medicines just as a person with high blood pressure or diabetes needs medicine.
My bottom line: the best way to prevent the winter blues is to stay active and keep a healthy diet. You can consider some supplements we’ve discussed, but if you feel you need more help, please do not hesitate to contact your family doctor or a counselor. We’re here to help!
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