Many people feel down during the winter. It's dark. It's cold. If your holidays were stressful, you might be experiencing the after-effects now: feeling wiped out, bloated, not sleeping well, catching colds/flus. But for some people every winter is unbearable. They're tired and depressed. They don't want to get out of bed. They snap at their families and binge on junk food.
These people have seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Our moods and energy levels fluctuate with the seasons. Traditional East Asian Medicine (TEAM) understands these cycles, but modern life does not. These days, you are expected to be active, productive and creative at all times of the year, especially here in Southern California where it’s sunny most of the year and relatively warm, even in the winter months. There is no accommodation for a slow, quiet winter. According to TEAM, this conflict causes stress, which can result in SAD.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that people experience at the same time every year. Most often, symptoms start in September or October and are relieved in April or May; however, some people experience SAD at different times of year. The symptoms include:
- Extreme fatigue, lethargy and sleepiness
- Increased appetite
- Carbohydrate cravings
- Lack of concentration
- Decreased libido
No one knows exactly what causes SAD but most of the theories involve light. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects mood, is triggered by light. Some people believe that decreased serotonin is the culprit. Others blame melatonin, a hormone that affects sleep and mood, because it is affected by darkness. In either case, light plays a role.
Western Medicine Treatments for SAD
Western medicine treats SAD with medications, psychotherapy and light therapy.
There are 2 types of light therapy. For bright light treatment, you sit in front of a light box for 30-45 minutes every day. For dawn simulation treatment, a dim light comes on while you sleep and gradually gets lighter.
Many people find light therapy very effective, and a recent Canadian study confirms this. Scientists found that light therapy was just as effective as Prozac for alleviating SAD, with fewer side effects and faster results.
Traditional East Asian Medicine Treatments for SAD
TEAM takes a holistic view of the body and seasonal cycles, and understands the energy behind them. All life is made of Qi, or life force. One of the principles of Qi is that everything is made of yin and yang. Yin is the feminine side, nourishing, cold and dark. Yang is the masculine side, active, warm and light.
Autumn marks the beginning of the yin cycle of the year. Daylight decreases, temperatures drop and nature takes a rest. Just as animals slow down and hibernate, our bodies slow down. It is a time for reflection and quiet activity.
If your constitution is particularly yin, from gender, genetics, environment or lifestyle, the yin cycle may hit you hard. Contemplation and rest may become isolation and depression. Your winter cycle becomes seasonal affective disorder.
The holidays put additional stress on your system. At a time when your body wants to slow down, holiday activities had you speed up. Parties, shopping, travel and holiday celebrations created tension between what your body needed and what you were doing. This stress depletes your body even more, contributing to exhaustion and cravings for carbohydrates to replenish your depleted energy.
To stay balanced in the winter and ward off SAD, conserve your energy. Practice quiet, yin activities like restorative yoga, Tai Chi, qigong, walking or journaling. Eat warm, slow-cooked stews and soups. Add yang spices like garlic, ginger, black pepper, cloves and basil to your foods. Limit cold drinks and raw vegetables. Rebuild your energy to prepare for spring.
Rice porridge, aka “okayu” in Japanese, “congee” in Mandarin Chinese, or “jook” in Cantonese or Korean is wonderful to eat during the cold months for a post-cold convalescing food as well as an overall digestive tonic.
How to make okayu: Wash a handful of glutinous rice ("sushi rice", minus the vinegar), place it in a pot and pour in 5-10 times more water than rice. Bring it to a boil and then simmer. The longer you let it simmer, the longer the rice soaks up the water and makes it porridge-y, this makes it more hydrating to the stomach. Okayu is as simple as that. You can flavor it by adding a little bit of salt and or sesame oil. Green onions, ginger or salted plum are some classic Asian favors you can mix in. Be creative with what you add if you want to make it a more substantial meal, but simple combinations of flavors and ingredients are always best when you are trying to slow down.
Most importantly, make an appointment with me for a seasonal acupuncture treatment. Balancing your Qi can relieve your seasonal affective disorder symptoms. Winter doesn't have to be a time of sadness, exhaustion and binge eating. Contact me to discuss your treatment options today.