Now that the holidays are over and the cold, dark days of winter are setting in, you may feel a bit down and want nothing better than to curl up in a blanket, watch television, and eat. If so, you may be suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which peaks during the dreary months of January and February.
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Winter blues, or SAD, is a type of depression that occurs every year during the fall and winter but goes away in spring and summer. Symptoms are the same as regular non-seasonal depression and include excessive fatigue, a loss of interest in activities you usually enjoy, and difficulty concentrating.
Winter blues are a real problem, says board-certified family practitioner David Brownstein, M.D. "There's no question that patients suffer from the winter blues," he tells Newsmax Health. "It is due, primarily, to a lack of sunshine. I hear from patient after patient that those who can get away for a vacation to a sunny, warm place, feel their SAD/blues symptoms fade."
Short of either being able to jet off to the Caribbean for a holiday, (Dr. Brownstein's "best prescription"), or beginning a regimen of antidepressant medications, there are other ways to conquer winter blues that are safe and effective.
• Let there be light. Most researchers agree that the majority of people who fall victim to SAD are particularly sensitive to light — at least the lack of it. Getting light in the morning appears to benefit SAD symptoms the most. If you can't get natural sunlight, use full spectrum lighting. "Exposure to full spectrum lighting for 30 minutes to one hour per day can help many patients," says Dr. Brownstein. Light boxes can be purchased for around $200 and full-spectrum lamps for less than $150.
• Take vitamin D. Lack of vitamin D — the sunshine vitamin — contributes to SAD. "The best natural method is to maintain optimal vitamin D levels throughout the year," says Dr. Brownstein. "The key is to not let vitamin D levels fall before beginning fall/winter supplementation." Dr. Brownstein advises maintaining enough to maintain a level of 40-80 ng/ml. The Institute of Medicine recommends 600 IU daily, but many experts advise taking much more. The Vitamin D Council recommends 2,000 IU daily and even more if you get little sun exposure.
•Exercise. Many studies dating as far back as the early 1980s have found that regular exercise alleviates depression. "Exercise has been shown to outperform psychotropic drug therapy in numerous studies," says Dr. Brownstein. "Furthermore, it has demonstrated this positive effect without any risk of adverse effects." Exercise raises levels of serotonin (the "feel good" hormone) and also increases levels of endorphins, which are responsible for "runner's high" and have been shown to fight depression.
One study divided patients into three groups: One group was treated with Zoloft (an antidepressant SSRI medication), a second group was treated with exercise, and a third group was treated with both Zoloft and exercise. After sixteen weeks, depression had decreased significantly in all three groups. But 38 percent of patients treated with Zoloft suffered a relapse, and 31 percent relapsed who were treated with both Zoloft and exercise. But only 8 percent in the exercise-only group had a recurrence of depression.
"As little as 20 minutes a day, three times per week of mild, moderate, or hard exercise has been shown to help depression," says Dr. Brownstein. "Walking and running, aerobic and non-aerobic exercise all have been shown to have antidepressive benefits. And those benefits are long lasting; that means the longer you do it, the more benefit you'll get."
• Try St. John's Wort. Using the herb St. John's Wort as a medicine dates to the ancient Greeks. Currently, the American College of Physicians suggests St. John's Wort be considered an option for mild depression. "The Cochrane Collabortion — an independent, nonprofit healthcare study group — found that St. John's Wort was superior to placebo in patients with major depression, and compared favorably to SSRIs and older tricyclic medications," says Dr. Brownstein. "Furthermore, St. John's Wort was found to have 75 percent fewer side effects than standard antidepressive medications."
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