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Beating the winter blues

It’s less than two weeks since the clocks went back, and much as I’m sure we all appreciate the extra hour in bed we get each year, it never really feels like much reward for the darker, shorter days that follow.

As I write, December 21st – the shortest day of the year (which always seems slightly ludicrous since it has as many hours in it as any other, just fewer with the sun for company) – lies a little over six weeks away.

Then we have to wait until late February before the sun is both up before 7am and still with us after 5pm.

In all, we spend around five months of the year living with noticeably less sunlight in our lives, but it is these first few weeks of disappearing sunshine that are often the most difficult for us psychologically.

The descent from summer into the darker days of autumn always feels much more rapid than the climb out of winter into spring.

This is really about perception – the sun starts its journey to the other side of the planet in mid-June, more or less four months before we wind back the clocks and takes only a couple of weeks longer than that to come back – but there’s an old saying that someone’s perception is also their reality.

And while the chronology of the seasons is more or less identical, most people’s reality is that autumn and winter can be a hard slog physically (it’s colder, less comfortable and more tiring) and emotionally (darker days are inevitably more melancholy).

Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD – the condition that triggers anxiety, stress and depression due to darker days that are emotionally claustrophobic – is one of the most common seasonal conditions experienced by people between November and March.

Though it is typically linked to the classic winter months of January and February, when temperatures are at their coldest and the nights seem to be at their darkest, it is thought to affect even more people during November and early December.

The cases that are evident in the early part of the New Year are the most severe or chronic. For those who suffer with SAD throughout autumn and winter, the impact physically and mentally can be terribly debilitating.

At its worst, SAD can trigger near emotional paralysis where the patient is unable to find the motivation or energy to engage with his or her own life or everyday events unfolding around them.

For many, work becomes a challenge too far, and absences become more prevalent. Those with SAD are less inclined to be socially active, which in turns deepens the sense of isolation and/or abandonment they may feel. Anxiety and stress increases, good quality sleep reduces, and physical health is compromised or impaired.

But there is a significant number of people who suffer with mild SAD that is relatively temporary and allows them – to all outward appearances – to function as close to normality as possible, but who nevertheless feel jaded, out of sorts, mildly depressed and listless.

This is the time of the year when these ‘transitory’ episodes of SAD are most prevalent, and they are temporary because in most cases those who experience mild symptoms of SAD do so during a period of mental and emotional adjustment that leads to acceptance of their physical environment and the ability to look and move forward.

The fact that some people only suffer from mild SAD symptoms and others suffer a much more severe impact is not unusual, nor is it something that either patient can actively control.

Although there is no incontrovertible research to explain why different people react in different ways to this seasonal condition, the widely accepted theory is that a lack of sunlight disrupts the body’s production of melatonin (the ‘sleep’ hormone), the production of serotonin (the hormone that influences happiness) and the circadian rhythm (your body clock).

The impact of this disruption is different in everybody, and ultimately leads – to one degree, or another – increased lethargy and sleepiness, greater feelings of depression and less good quality sleep (which in turn can fuel depression).

How can acupuncture help?

There are a number of ways that acupuncture can help to alleviate the symptoms of SAD.

  • Acupuncture for depression – acupuncture has been shown to play an important role in reducing stress, anxiety and depression. As a holistic treatment, acupuncture restores natural energy and balance throughout the body, improving organ function and enabling patients to find a calm and rational place from which to build renewed confidence and optimism.
  • Acupuncture for better lifestyle choices – we all have vices that impact on our health – but some bad habits, such as smoking or excessive drinking, can have a greater impact than others. Acupuncture is brilliant for helping to break bad habits because it helps us to develop the inner resilience and willpower needed to make the changes that are necessary for good health
  • Acupuncture for a more active, healthier life – the primary cause of SAD is Vitamin D deficiency. Sunlight triggers production of Vitamin D, so inevitably one of the simplest ways to ease the symptoms of SAD is to expose ourselves to as much natural sunlight as possible. But for some people who may have health issues or injuries that make this difficult, it’s not so easy to do. Acupuncture can help the body’s natural healing processes – and even though it may not completely cure whatever ails you (although there are many patients who will testify that it often does) it can give you the chance to improve your fitness and get out to make the most of the sun’s healing energy as well.

 Here are some other tips to improve your SAD symptoms:

  • Invest in light therapy – a light box replicates, as closely as possible, the sun’s light and they are relatively inexpensive
  • Eat better – changes to your diet will natural improve your energy levels, building your motivation to seize each moment, so it’s important that you concentrate on eating the right foods that support better health.
  • Put the screens away at bedtime – if you are getting interrupted sleep, you need to make the most of the sleep you are There’s plenty of research that shows the blue light from our phones and tablets disrupts the body’s production of melatonin – which is already compromised through a lack of sunlight. So stay away from your screen for at least an hour before you switch out the light – and make sure the sleep you are getting is the best possible quality.

If you’d like to talk to me the impact SAD is having on your life – no matter how severe or mild – or you’d like to book a consultation, please get in touch. I’d love to hear from you.


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