How Sad is S.A.D?

In the first of a new regular column in Lothian Life, three health practitioners from Napiers the Herbalists focus on a different health issue each month and look at three different ways to deal with it. This month Herbalist Dee Atkinson, Massage Therapist Jill Mclaggan and Nutritionist Helen Gestwicki look at Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD as it’s often referred to.

SAD is a type of winter depression that affects an estimated 7% of the population every winter, particularly during December, January and February. The key Symptoms of SAD are low mood; sleep problems; tiredness and lethargy; over eating; loss of concentration; anxiety and even loss of libido and mood changes. Many sufferers show signs of a weakened immune system during the winter, and are more vulnerable to infections and other illnesses.

The symptoms tend to go in spring, and this can happen quite suddenly, the sufferer often having a period of hyperactivity as the SAD lifts. Other sufferers find things gradually change as the levels of sunlight improve in early spring and summer

Although SAD can begin at any age, it often becomes noticeable in the late teens and 20’s, and is especially common in Northern countries.  It is probable that in Scotland more than the 7% national average suffer, and it often takes years for sufferers to recognise the pattern.

Dee Atkinson MNIMH

Medical herbalist.

In 1860, Victorian Herbalist Duncan Napier developed his famous ‘Herbal Nerve Debility Tonic’. He wrote that it was  ‘for the stresses and strains of modern living, when one was tired and low, when one just wanted to sit down and cry, when we were neither a comfort to ourselves or our friends’. In modern terms his Herbal Tonic was a complex formula that was focused treating mild seasonal depression or as it is now known ‘SAD’.

Season changes affect our biological clock, triggering changes in our circadian rhythm, which can cause disruption of Melatonin, a natural hormone, and a dip in the brain chemical, serotonin. There are measurable changes taking place.

The herbs that Duncan Napier used, were known to uplift mood, ease stress, relieve bowel problems, and regulate sleep patterns. Herbs such as Skullcap, Oats and Passionflower have centuries of recorded use in managing SAD. This complex formula works synergistically, the different herbs supporting the different body systems, regulating natural hormone production and balancing brain chemical production.

Herbalists combine herbs with diet and lifestyle support to help patients manage SAD. There is no quick fix here, and patients need focused and methodical in their approach. Daily exposure to daylight, using a light box, reducing caffeine and alcohol can all help, and when combine with a tailored herbal approach, SAD can be managed.

Jill Mclaggan

Massage Therapist

Regular massage can help to alleviate the symptoms of SAD and other forms of depression, in particular, symptoms such as low mood, anxiousness, irritability and irregular sleep patterns.

Sufferers of SAD have abnormally low levels of serotonin, the chemical that plays a role in mood, appetite and sleep patterns. Therefore, any treatment which increases these levels, or at least maintain the patient’s level, may help to improve the patient’s symptoms.

Good massage stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. This induces feelings of calm, relaxation and well-being.  Importantly, massage also increases serotonin levels. 

Massage will also benefit the patient from the perspective that the patient is taking time out to look  after themselves, giving themselves a break, again, inducing feel-good (or at least feel-better!) emotions.

The benefits, are cumulative, initially lasting hours.  However, if the patient is able to commit to a number of treatments, the benefits will last longer and longer. It is also advisable to start treatment before the symptoms really take hold.  As the nights start to draw in the patient may begin to feel anxious and nervous about the “impending” illness thereby jump-starting the spiral into depression, allowing the illness to start earlier and earlier each year.

Helen Gestwicki

Nutritional Therpaist

Carbohydrate cravings are common in people with SAD, but it’s really important to eat the right ones! Replacing simple and refined carbohydrates, such as sugar and foods made from white flour, with wholegrains can help improve energy levels and mood. Include some good quality protein in your meals to boost energy – lean meat, fish, nuts, seeds, beans, soya and pulses are ideal. Using more wholegrains and protein-rich foods will also increase B vitamin levels, important for mood and energy, but you could also take a good multivitamin with B vitamins in to supplement your diet. I also recommend increasing Omega 3 fatty acids from oily fish, eggs and linseeds during the winter to support the mood and also the immune system.

Vitamin D has been in the news a lot recently and studies suggest that most people in Scotland will be deficient in vitamin D by February. Low vitamin D levels are linked to depression, low energy and a number of chronic illnesses, so it’s worth getting your levels checked and taking a supplement from the end of summer if your levels are low.

Dee, Jill and Helen are all available for consultations at Napiers the Herbalists. Phone 0131 315 2130  to make an appointment.

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