First published in Homeopathy Today – January 2003
With the shorter, colder, cloudier days and the longer nights of fall and winter, some people become unaccountably depressed. It is only relatively recent that these people have been acknowledged as suffering from a syndrome called Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. Those living in the Northern Hemisphere are particularly susceptible to SAD, and the further north one lives, the more susceptible.
When the colder, darker weather of the fall and winter months arrives, some people find they have to drag themselves out of bed in the morning and they take longer to get going. They never feel as fully alive as they do in the sunny, summer months. Their symptoms can start as early as September or October and last until the following March or even April. Sunlight is food and drink for the body and soul of these people, so that with the coming of spring and the promise of more light, especially more sunlight, they come alive again. They can even become overactive at this time, needing little sleep and feeling almost maniacally happy.
Homeopaths have noted that some people are more sensitive to light and to atmospheric pressures than others. They react to changes in weather, feeling heavy, sluggish and depressed on a cloudy day and feeling light, energetic, and happy on clear, sunny days. Some people even know what the weather is before they open their eyes in the morning (before they open their curtains!) Homeopaths take these individual responses to weather into account when selecting a remedy. Just as no two patients with asthma or arthritis will necessarily receive the same treatment, so no two patients with depression or SAD will respond to the same homeopathic medicine.
The symptoms of SAD differ slightly from an ordinary depression in that there’s an increase in appetite and subsequent weight gain. Other depressions are more often accompanied by a loss of appetite. Typical symptoms of SAD are: – Depression with apathy: a loss of interest in things and people that formerly gave pleasure and enjoyment. – Loss of libido. – Sluggishness: ranging from feeling heavy and tired to overpoweringly sleepy. – Sleep is not refreshing: exhaustion isn’t relieved by sleep and they wake feeling tired. – Difficulty in concentrating and doing mental work. – Loss of mental creativity. – Craving for heavy foods, for foods high in carbohydrates (bread and pastry), and for sweet things (candy, cookies, and cakes). – Feeling generally worse in the autumn and winter, in the dark and the cold. – Feeling generally better in the spring, for light, especially for sunshine.
We all need light, but relatively little is known about the actual process of how and why we need it. The pineal gland (which nestles in the center of the brain) releases a hormone called melatonin, which is produced in the darkness and inhibited by light. This hormone is instrumental in determining our body’s daily rhythms – in setting our body clock or Circadian rhythms – and affects our patterns of sleeping and waking, our internal thermostats as well as our moods. One of the causes of jet lag is thought to be a disruption of the production of melatonin. Recent studies have found that a small (artificial) dose given in the afternoon can make the body think it is time to sleep. We don’t know if melatonin is the cause of SAD – it is more likely that it is a symptom or marker of this particular type of depression.
Do’s and Don’ts for SAD Sufferers
Do – Make winter sunshine a priority, especially if you live and/or work in a dark or darkish environment. This may mean altering or canceling plans to take advantage of any sun that does shine. – Sit outside during your lunch hour (well wrapped-up if it’s cold and sunny!), and do the shopping and errands after work. – Cancel cooking Sunday lunch to spend a sunny day in the garden or a local park. – Take frequent opportunities to spend a sunny day in the country or by the sea. – Take your annual vacation in the winter and travel to sunnier climates. Even though the relief may be only temporary, it will help you to get through those winter months. – Take up a gentle, daily exercise routine (in the summer months) and stick to it once autumn comes. – Eat little and often, adding as much fresh fruit and vegetables to the stodgy and sticky foods as you can. – Organize your working environment near a window – whether you work from home or an office. Consider changing your office (or even your job) if you suffer from SAD and work in an air-conditioned building without windows. – Sleep more, but not too much more. – Wear sunny, brightly-colored clothes (yellows, oranges, and reds). – Keep a journal – recording the weather and major events in your life and how they affect you, your body, your feelings, and your dreams. Writing is a powerful form of self-therapy that brings clarity and awareness. Over time, patterns emerge that we are not necessarily aware of as we rush through our lives. – Learn a meditation or relaxation technique that involves imagining a sunny place that you “visit” on a regular basis. You can simply close your eyes and imagine yourself lying on a sun-drenched beach, in a meadow, or by a lake or river. It is important not to underestimate the healing power of the imagination on our physical and emotional bodies.
Don’t – Wear sunglasses outside (unless your eyes are painfully sensitive to bright sunlight) as these cut down the amount of sunlight and vitamin D that is absorbed through your eyes in the winter (and the summer) months.
see the light!
There is a connection from the retina of the eye to the pineal gland, (via the nervous system) which is why it is so important that we “see the light!” “Light therapy” has been found to help some people. The light has to be bright, although in practice it is hard to mimic the amount of light we receive on a sunny day. Light is measured in “lux” with the amount we receive on a sunny summer day being about 100,000 lux and a clear spring morning giving around 10,000 lux! Most homes have light levels between 100-300 lux, while well-lit offices generally don’t go above 700 lux.
Bright light treatment involves sitting for several hours a day close to a powerful light source – a box of full-spectrum fluorescent lights – in order to stimulate the retina and modify the secretion of melatonin. Full-spectrum lighting mimics daylight by having extra ultraviolet lighting in the tubes. It requires a minimum of 2,500 lux to be effective, and the brightness recommended by researchers and clinicians for most people is 10,000 lux.
If you decide to purchase a light box to help you through another long, dark winter then do your research carefully as there are a tremendous number of websites selling these products at a great variety of prices.
the whole picture
The endocrine (hormonal) system is a complex ruling system that is powerfully interconnected and directly affected by our thoughts and feelings. It is important to step back and look at the whole picture with any depression, even if it is cyclical and seems only to come and go with the weather. For some people, counseling or psychotherapy may be helpful in identifying why these darker times are so difficult and what they are stirring up on an unconscious level. On a psychological, mostly unconscious level, light, especially sunlight, represents a powerful life-giving source of energy. By contrast, darkness represents the hidden, dark side of life and therefore represents those hidden parts of ourselves that we might rather not look into.
Seasonal affective disorder may be innate for some people. In other words, it may be a response they were born with (like some of us are just born warm-blooded and others of us are chilly through and through). It may be a response that they were always aware of or it may have lain dormant and surfaced only after a period of heavy stress. These are those who spend most of their lives yearning for the sun when it is absent and who feel generally unwell during those times of the year. They experience an exacerbation of their chronic symptoms at that time. They perk right up during the sunny spring and summer months and then start to mourn again once the fall weather announces the imminent onset of winter.
For other people, SAD can come on during or after a period of emotional or physical stress. It is useful to look back and chart the development of a depression – even one that seems to be entirely weather related. Was it accompanied by other, hormone-related symptoms (menopause for example), or distressing emotional events like a bereavement or a job loss? Homeopathy takes the whole picture into account, including any triggers or causes, and it is these triggers that are particularly important in finding the correct remedy.
There are many homeopathic remedies that have SAD symptoms (being affected by the light and especially the lack of light in winter months) as part of their clinical symptom picture.
Self-prescribing is not recommended for chronic (long-term) SAD that recurs year after year. This kind of more serious depression needs the expertise of a homeopath to piece together all the parts of a person’s history to find the remedy that matches best.
You can treat an acute episode of SAD – one that comes on after an unusually long period without sunshine. If you do find a good remedy match, then take it in the 30C potency, three times daily for two days. If it doesn’t work, then you need the advice of your local homeopathic practitioner. Below are some of my favorite SAD remedies.
Ammonium carbonicum is for chilly individuals who are very much affected by the dull, cloudy weather of winter – they become apathetic and unmotivated, not wanting to work or do anything. They eat themselves silly. – craving lots of sweet things (especially candies which give them toothaches) – put on lots of weight.
Aurum metallicum is for those who sink into terrible depression in the dark of the winter feeling like the cloud is sitting over them. At their worst, they feel that life isn’t worth living. They take solace in work and/or religion and hide themselves away listening to sad music until the sun returns the following spring.
Phosphorus has a really close relationship with the weather, loving the sun and sparkling with it – actually feeling invigorated by being out in the sunshine. They are deeply affected by cloudy weather – becoming miserable and gloomy the longer the sun stays away. In the deepest, darkest time of the winter they can slow right down, not wanting to do anything. Chocolate (especially chocolate ice cream) is a great source of comfort at those times – as are their friends. Even brief outbursts of sunshine on a winter’s day will lift their spirits, as can getting out with friends and going to a party or going dancing!
Rhus toxicodendron is useful for those who are particularly vulnerable to cloudy weather, who find that the cold, damp, wet and cloudy weather makes them feel just plain miserable. Their body reacts to the cloudy weather by stiffening up – especially the back and the joints – which makes them feel even worse. Getting up after sitting or lying down for a while is hard, and then continued movement eases the stiffness – unfortunately, those joints start to hurt again if they are using them for a while so they have to rest – after which the whole maddening cycle starts again, thereby causing the restlessness that is a keynote for this remedy.
Sepia is for extremely chilly types who hate everything about winter: the damp, the rain, the frost, the snow, the clouds – everything. Their moods start to lift when they begin to get warm again in the late spring and early summer when they can get out in the fresh air and do some vigorous exercise. These people love to run much more than jog, and it is this kind of exercise – vigorous exercise in the fresh air – that makes them feel really well overall. If they can’t do it, they sink into a depressed, irritable state where they want to be alone (and eventually, so does everyone else – want them to be alone that is!)
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