Your Monthly Check-Up: Feeling SAD?

For many of us, this winter came with a vengeance. Between the sub-zero temperatures of the polar vortex and the feet upon feet of snow, people living in the colder climates just can’t catch a break. Add to this the decreased daylight hours and you’ve got a recipe for SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder.

According to “Beating the Winter Blues” by Jill Metzler Patton in December 2013 issue of “Experience Life” magazine, up to one-third of people living in the US experience symptoms of SAD, including decreased mood and energy, feelings of depression or sadness or sleepiness/sleeplessness during the colder, darker months.

“For bodies originally designed to rise with the sun and retreat to caves at nightfall, the loss of daylight hours can throw internal rhythms out of whack,” Metzler Patton writes in her article. Our internal clocks are largely controlled by melatonin, the hormone that regulates our sleep-wake cycles and is made of the same molecule as serotonin, which promotes feelings of well-being.

Melatonin levels rise in the evening, but the longer winter nights cause the brain to release more melatonin at the expense of serotonin, as explained by psychiatrist Henry Emmons, MD, in the article. Reduced serotonin triggers mood-depleting feelings and behaviors. But there are ways to offset this.

One solution is to use a light box that emits 10,000 lux of full-spectrum light that mimics the sun and resets your body clock. “Bright light therapy is the fastest known established treatment for seasonal depression,” says psychologist Stephen Ilardi, PhD, in the article. Just 20 to 30 minutes in the morning hours and 15 to 20 minutes in the evening can help offset the effects of SAD.

Avoiding sweets is also a great way to feel better when the winter blues take hold, as simple carbs cause a surge of insulin that makes you feel good but doesn’t last. “Eating sugary foods erodes your resilience,” says Emmons, noting that simple carbs spike your blood sugar and lead to crashes. Instead, opt for complex carbs like legumes, beans and root vegetables that help keep your blood sugar stable.

Taking a combination of supplements can help keep the brain in balance, as well. Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon and walnuts, help the brain use serotonin more efficiently. Vitamin D3 can reduce inflammation and help elevate mood as the body makes less of it during the winter. And Vitamin B complex has been shown to be helpful in treating depression, according to Emmons.

A good workout is a great defense against the winter blues, though making it to the gym when temps plummet isn’t the easiest thing to do. According to Metzler Patton’s article, a 1999 study by Duke University shows that brisk exercise three times per week is as effective as drug therapy in alleviating symptoms of depression. An added bonus: losing weight and getting stronger with regular exercise!

Getting adequate restful sleep is important year-round but especially in the winter months when our body clocks are going haywire. Excessive sleeping, or hypersomnia, is a big facet of SAD, and Ilardi says, “There’s nothing wrong with sleeping nine hours a night” for the sleep-deprived. But more than quantity, the slow-wave, restorative sleep is what SAD-sufferers tend to lack in the winter.

Last but not least, practicing yoga and mindfulness can act as powerful antidepressants. “You can chemically change your brain through mindfulness,” Emmons states. “You have some say in what pathways you reinforce, what neural connections you’re firing and wiring.” Energizing yoga practices can help increase mental clarity and restore your energy during the cold, dark winter months.

Light therapy, nutrition, exercise, sleep and mindfulness are the remedies for helping you through the time of year that can be difficult for many people. Emmons says, “If you learn to pay attention to your body – how it’s starting to change and react to the season – you can listen to what it needs and respond.”

Read Metzler Patton’s full article here.

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Your Monthly Check-Up: Meditation, Down Time and the Power of a Good Night’s Sleep

Part III: Sleep

(Click here for Part I: Relaxation and here for Part II: Meditation)

So far we’ve covered relaxation and deep relaxation in the form of meditation. Now let’s talk about the ultimate in relaxation – sleep. Everyone needs it and most aren’t getting enough of it – to the detriment of every area of our lives. You’ll want to stay awake for this.

In “The Healing Power of Sleep,” Pamela Weintraub, Executive Editor of Discover magazine and author of Cure Unknown: Inside the Lyme Epidemic, uncovers just how sleep deprived we are as a nation, the detriment sleep-deprivation does to our bodies and minds and how we can turn this nocturnal habit around.

“People devalue sleep and are completely unaware of what happens to them when they have a deficit,” says James Maas, PhD, a recently retired Cornell scientist and one of the world’s foremost sleep researchers, according to Weintraub’s article. “As a society we are so habituated to low levels of sleep that most of us don’t know what it feels like to be fully alert and awake.”

University of Chicago sleep researcher David Gozal, MD, adds that we treat sleep like a “tradable commodity,” sacrificing it for everything from work responsibilities to entertainment or other lifestyle choices. We create this deficit because it can take upwards of months or years for symptoms of a sleep deprivation-related disease to surface, according to Gozal.

How many of you have used the phrase, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead?” I know I have.

According to Weintraub’s article, sleep deprivation, even by as little as one hour a night, can wreak massive havoc in the body and mind. Most people are aware by now that lack of sleep creates increased food cravings, increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol and disrupted metabolism, all of which can lead to weight gain. However, not getting enough Zs can perpetuate a plethora of other lesser-known symptoms, such as hair loss, hearing loss, skin problems, insulin resistance, vision problems, sexual functioning and even cancer.

In her article, Weintraub recounts the story of Jason Karp, a 36-year-old hedge-fund manager and restaurateur who had reached a dangerous level of sleep deprivation before he sought help. An ambitious learner, Karp taught himself to speed-read and would spend long hours reading as opposed to getting adequate sleep – sometimes sleeping just two or three hours a night.

Karp began seeing double and was diagnosed with keratoconus, a disease that causes the cornea to progressively degenerate, sometimes necessitating a transplant. Then, he began experiencing prostate pain. His hair fell out in clumps and he broke out in a rash. Finally, one doctor told him his cortisol level was so high he may not live to see 40. Karp legitimately believed he was dying.

When Karp came across a bit of research that linked his rash to his keratoconus, he decided to try and cure himself by getting more sleep and altering his diet. Though it took some time for Karp to retrain himself to sleep, about six months later he had recovered from every symptom he was suffering with. And although Karp is an extreme case of someone who trained himself to forgo sleep, these are real symptoms that can occur in anyone suffering from lack of sleep.

Find out if you are sleep deprived by taking the quiz devised by James B. Maas, PhD. How else can you incorporate more rest, relaxation and sleep into your weekly agenda? Do you think you’d benefit from slowing down and taking time out for yourself during the day? What positive changes do you think you’d see? Talk to us in the “Comments” section below!

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