Some people, like Davis, are prescribed antidepressants to ease their symptoms at first. Herbal alternatives exist, however, most notably St. John’s wort. Research from the University of Vienna, Austria found that taking 900 mg of hypericum (an extract of St. John’s wort) daily for four weeks was as effective as light therapy in treating SAD patients. And valerian root can help with insomnia caused by depression. A review of studies found that 300 to 600 mg taken 30 minutes to two hours before bedtime effectively eased sleeplessness.
Since SAD can alter normal melatonin production, which can also affect your sleep cycle, you may benefit from taking supplements. Melatonin levels increase before bedtime, peak during the night, and gradually decrease as morning approaches. Taking 2 mg of melatonin one to two hours before bedtime improved the sleep quality and resultant vitality of SAD patients, according to a 2003 study in the journal European Neuropsychopharmacology. (Caution: Children and teens should only take melatonin under a doctor’s supervision. Some experts believe extra melatonin could delay normal development during puberty.)
Short days and long nights can also disrupt your normal sleep routine since your body isn’t used to going to bed when the sun sets around dinnertime or waking up when it’s still dark. A dawn simulator can help maintain your normal spring/summer sleep cycle. The device gradually fills your bedroom with light, simulating a natural sunrise, to gently tell your body it’s time to wake up–even if it’s still dark outside. (Read about dawn simulators here, Easy Greening: Alarm Clocks.)
A 2005 study from the Center for Health Studies in Seattle found that dawn simulators along with light therapy helped reduce symptom severity in SAD patients.
Regular acupuncture treatments can also help control SAD. Stimulating the yintang point, between the eyebrows, relieves many of the symptoms, says acupuncturist Skya Abbate, DOM, executive director of the Southwest Acupuncture College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “Needling yintang stimulates the pineal gland, which helps produce more melatonin and decreases lethargy and depression,” says Abbate.
No one can control the seasons, but you can stop them from controlling you. Davis has held her SAD in check for four years now. It takes effort, but her combination of exercise and light therapy has kept her light switch permanently in the “on” position. “I’m still not a winter person,” she says. “But now I can enjoy the parts of winter I used to, like the beauty of snow and the joy of holidays. I now have the confidence that I can function in a more normal way.”
Do You Have SAD?
You may, if your depression begins every September or October and ends each spring in March or April, and if your depressive episodes occur at least two years in a row. If you suspect SAD, it’s a good idea to first rule out hypothyroidism, anemia, hypoglycemia, and chronic viral illnesses, since these conditions may mimic SAD.
Core SAD symptoms:
Increased sleep (70 to 90 percent of SAD patients)
Increased appetite (70 to 90 percent)
Significant weight gain (70 to 90 percent)
Carbohydrate cravings (80 to 90 percent)
Fatigue/inability to carry out normal routine
Feelings of misery, guilt, low self-esteem, despair, apathy
Avoidance of social contacts
Increased susceptibility to stress
Decreased interest in physical contact and sex
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