As we approach the shortest day of the year, we here in Bozeman really feel the affects of less sunlight each day. There is a true medical condition associated with this change called seasonal affective disorder or S.A.D for short. SAD is a really appropriate acronym because that’s exactly what happens to people who suffer from the shorter days with less sunlight, they become sad.
SAD is a depressive state that directly relates to sunlight exposure and is correlated with the change of seasons. It is very common in the animal kingdom to see animals change behavior during different seasons of the year based on food availability, mating patterns, and resources they need to survive. An extreme example of behavior change is hibernation (personally I think Yogi got that one right). Animals will hibernate to conserve energy and wait for food resources to become available in the spring. We as humans however continue with our crazy busy schedules, working our fingers to the bone, running all over the country side and never stopping to think about our circadian rhythms, and how they to can change during the seasons too.
Symptoms of SAD include feeling more tired and having a tendency to sleep in and not get out of bed. There also is a tendency for increased sugar cravings and carbohydrate consumption especially from sugars. Lack of energy, withdrawal from social engagements, lack of concentration, and decreased libido all are indications you may be suffering from SAD.
SAD is caused by biochemical changes in your brain that affect your mood and pleasure centers. This predominantly relates to the neurotransmitter serotonin. Sunlight is composed of many wavelengths of light some we can see and some we cannot see. We see the color spectrum ROYGBIV but there are many wavelengths that we do not see like infrared or x-ray. There are many specific wavelengths that have physiological effects on our body. This is a very exciting field of healthcare in which lasers can be used to help facilitate healing. Some of these wavelengths of light when our body is exposed to them will increase serotonin levels in our brain. Serotonin is the “feel good” neurotransmitter. If our levels of serotonin are decreasing because of lack of sunlight its not surprising that we get SAD.
For those who suffer from SAD the great news is that light is not the only thing that produces serotonin. Ironically one of the places that produce the most serotonin is a very dark place. Our digestive tract is responsible for 80% of the serotonin production in our body. Therefore combating SAD can be done very effectively by making sure you have a healthy digestive tract. In typical human fashion however we like to sabotage ourselves constantly by creating social customs that perpetuate inflammation in our digestive tracts.
One of the most highly inflammatory things our body can ingest is sugar. Sugar not only increases inflammation but it is food to organisms like yeast and bacteria that live in our digestive tract that disrupt our normal gut flora. As soon as the light starts to fade and days get shorter we create holidays that are full of sugar. It starts with Halloween, then comes Thanksgiving, holiday parties, Christmas or Hanukkah, New Years, Valentines Day, and Easter. After Easter the days start to get longer again. Ever stop to think about all the sugar that gets sold specifically for those holidays!
To help combat the bombardment of all the irritation to our digestive tracts it is important to limit the amount of indulgence that we partake in and work to maintain a healthy digestive system by putting the right stuff back in. Our body works in a paradoxical system where we are constantly putting things in and then eliminating waste products at the same time. By maintaining a healthy level of good gut flora we will digest foods much better and our body will produce more serotonin, which will keep us from getting SAD.
Vitamin D is also a very important part of preventing SAD. Most people who suffer from SAD have low vitamin D levels. This makes sense, as we need sunlight to also make vitamin D. Since we have a hard time getting enough sunshine exposure being way up north here in Bozeman supplementing with vitamin D can be very helpful. There are many different schools of thought on how much should be taken as a maintenance dose. Taking 2000-4000 IU of vitamin D per day is a very safe dose. It is estimated that people who live close to the equator that get direct sunlight exposure all year make approximately 10,000 IU of vitamin D per day. Remember that vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin so taking vitamin D with your fish oils which is also good for reducing inflammation, producing hormones, and keeping your neurological tissue healthy is a really good idea. 3000 mg of fish oil per day is highly recommended from womb to tomb.
Using full spectrum light bulbs in areas where you spend a lot of time such as work or around your home can be very helpful also at combating SAD. The most important thing you can do however is to make sure that you are getting outside and enjoying the fresh air and making your own endorphins. Being active and moving your body in any form of exercise is very important for mental and neurological health, but it is extremely important if you are feeling SAD. By exercising your body also makes endorphins and increases serotonin levels naturally which will help to improve your mood and keep you feeling good. Get outside, ski, hike, snowshoe, ice skate, ice climb, go sledding or just take a walk. All will have great affects on your mood. If you really have a hard time being outside in the cold than make sure you get to the gym and keep yourself active and participate in activities that you like and enjoy. Having purpose is also very important at combating depression and keeping you from feeling SAD.
Winters here in Bozeman are long, but remember we have long summers days here too. Enjoy the change of seasons, and don’t get trapped by the winter blues, protect your mental health by eating right, taking your vitamin D and fish oils, don’t eat to many sugars and carbohydrates, exercise and get outside and fight off SAD by living healthy, living naturally and living optimally.
Dr. Phil Cameron DC is the owner of the Bozeman Wellness Center. He is a Chiropractic Physician and Professional Applied Kinesiologist. He treats every patient based on his or her individual health care needs and strives to help each patient Live Healthy, Live Naturally, and Live Optimally. Visit www.bozemanwellnesscenter.com for more information.