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  • Jennifer Leigh

It's not too early to prepare for SAD

Us Alaskans have no doubt noticed the recent nip in the air, the tinge of red on the fireweed leaves, and of course, that it is finally getting dark at night…signs that the frenzy of summer is now spilling over into the soft landing of fall. While this brings many comforts like the regulating rhythm of the school year, improved sleep without the need for blackout curtains or a sleep mask, and cozy campfires now that the burn ban is behind us, it also marks the beginning of the long decent into winter, which for many Alaskans is an unwelcome prospect.

I take these cues as a time to prepare for what is to come for about 26% of Alaskans (the highest incident rate in North America!), Seasonal Affective Disorder, affectionately known as SAD. As many of you know, SAD is a type of seasonal depression that manifests due to a reduction in sunlight (although some people suffer from autumn, spring, or summer SAD) and includes typical depression symptoms such as lethargy, low motivation, a more negative outlook, an increase or decrease in appetite, sleep dysregulation, agitation, or anxiety. The seasonal reduction in sunlight triggers a cascade of hormonal changes starting with a decrease in serotonin and cortisol in the morning that for some of us can result in a significant imbalance in many other hormones as well. This creates a lack of well-being that can be improved through some healthy habits, special tricks, supplements, and some medications.

To some degree, it is perfectly natural for there to be seasonal changes in our sleep, appetite and motivation- just look at all the other mammals during winter! Nearly all mammals decrease their activity levels or even go into a torpor or hibernation for the winter months. Us homo sapiens, however, have a way of demanding the same tempo of life year-round, which isn’t necessarily good for our mental health, but unavoidable in this modern world.

So, what’s to be done about this seasonal dip so many of us experience? My recommendation for those who so struggle with this is to start thinking about it early, which is why I chose to write this blog entry in August. Once the tendrils of SAD are wrapped around you, it is much harder to be motivated to act, so being proactive gives you a step up.

There are a few things to consider as far as supplementation, which always should be discussed with your doctor. Nearly every one of us would benefit from taking a Vitamin D supplement and a fish oil supplement, both of which help combat depression in general, and SAD in particular. This is a good time of year to start those supplements to stay ahead of the waning light that helps us produce our own Vitamin D before we are depleted come wintertime.

There are many important actions you can take to fend of other aspects of SAD, most of which have to do with supporting good biorhythms. Scroll down and read my articles on sleep and exercise, as the importance of sleep quality and quantity cannot be overestimated while exercise promotes many wellness benefits; it’s free medicine no one should do without. Making the effort to improve your diet and reduce sugar intake will do a lot to help your hormones stay balanced. And there’s no use ingesting depressants if you suffer from depression issues, so reducing your alcohol intake is also a positive step.

Other tricks include using a light box for phototherapy for about 30 minutes each morning, taking a 1-2 minute cold shower each morning (Really! It’s exhilarating!), planning regular activities with friends to combat winter doldrums (Winter game night? Concert ticket subscriptions? Ski lessons?), or planning a trip to a sunny locale mid-winter to have a bright spot to look forward to.

There are a few medications that can also be used, but again, talk to your doctor before starting something new. Over the counter 5HTP is a serotonin precursor that can help your body produce more serotonin which has been shown to help with SAD symptoms. This is different than what a prescription SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor) like Prozac, Lexapro, or Zoloft does, but these medications are also known to help with SAD but must be prescribed by a medical provider.

I hope these options give you some ideas to consider and to learn more about as the darker half of the year comes upon us. Many of these steps are easily said and difficult to follow through on, so talking with your therapist, doctor, or other healers in your life about these and other recommendations now will help you stay ahead of the game when it comes to SAD and have much higher chances of having a wonderful winter ahead.

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