Battling the Winter Blues: Seasonal Affective Disorder
Madiha Saeed, MD
The cool air brings a majestic change as lush, heavenly greens turn to rich yellows, reds, and oranges, and finally to a bare, cold tree. A change in season is not only accompanied by the change in weather; for some it can be accompanied by a change in mood, a depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
This type of depression usually occurs at the same time yearly, usually beginning in the fall and continuing into the winter months, but can also occur in the spring and early summer. It is characterized by normal mood with no episodes of depression throughout most of the year, with depression consistently occurring only in certain seasons. Being a subtype of depression, according to criteria established by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), SAD is depression with a seasonal pattern that includes having the following experiences for at least the last two years: feelings of hopelessness/worthlessness, low energy, losing interest, problems sleeping, appetite and weight changes, fatigue and/or agitation or irritability, difficulty concentrating, frequent thoughts of suicide or death, inability to get along with others, substance abuse, and being socially withdrawn.
SAD risk factors include being female, being younger in age, those with a strong family history, having a clinical diagnosis of a form of depression or bipolar disorder, and/ or living further from the equator. The specific cause of SAD is unknown, but elements that can play a role include a decrease in the level of sunlight (leading to serotonin and melatonin imbalances) and gut problems also called leaky gut syndrome. For acute and serious cases, medications may be used after being assessed by a doctor. But for chronic less severe cases, getting to the root cause is crucial as diet and its deficiencies are key in the development of SAD. There are multiple factors that can heal those underlying causes by targeting inflammation (when our bodies are out of balance) and allowing our bodies to equalize.
IMPROVE GUT HEALTH. About 70 to 80 percent of the immune system is located in the digestive system. When immune cells are activated through the gut, they release inflammatory molecules that travel throughout the body and cause inflammation in our joints, skin, blood vessels, brain—everywhere! What we put in our stomachs has the ability to harm us in more ways than you might think. It can lead to inflammation and even depression. Keep your gut healthy by adhering to a few simple rules:
EXERCISE. Regular exercise is very important in healing SAD as it lowers markers of systemic inflammation. In fact, adding any type of exercise will help reduce inflammation, lift mood, and also relieve stress and anxiety, all of which increase SAD symptoms. Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him [PBUH]) was reported to walk in a fast pace, now known as a power walk. In a hadith, Ali described Muhammad’s (PBUH) vigorous way of walking. In another hadith, Abu Hurairah narrated, “I did not see anyone walk faster than him, as if the earth folded for him. A few moments ago he would be here, and then there. We found it difficult to keep pace when we walked with him, and he walked at his normal pace” (Tirmidhi). Exercise does not always have to be a specific workout; it can include any activity that increases your heart rate, so try being active whenever the opportunity arises. Taking a walk outside can help symptoms of sadness, especially within two hours of getting up in the morning.
SLEEP. Our bodies are hard at work while we sleep. In those eight-ish hours per night, the body removes toxins, produces hormones, and builds the immune system to help fight infections. Failing to get enough rest means our bodies cannot complete those important tasks, and this boosts the chance of developing problems due to excess toxins, hormone imbalances, and inflammation, which can all lead to sadness and depression. Prioritizing sleep is crucial in healing SAD.
RELAX. Stress is responsible for more than 80 percent of patients’ complaints and can lead to Seasonal Affective Disorder. Managing stress is essential in healing and preventing diseases. A regular practice of mind-body techniques—such as prayer, meditation, guided relaxation, and guided imagery—can have a powerful, positive effect on health and reverse SAD. Daily practices of relaxation help manage stress and anxiety, lower blood pressure and heart rate, keep damaging hormones at bay, spark brain growth, change gene expression, increase blood circulation, and improve digestion; the body detoxes, unhealthy genes are switched off, and the overall immune system is enhanced, balancing your inner world.
SOCIALIZE. One’s social environment is important for overall health. To give and receive love inspires healing—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. When you’re feeling down, it can be hard to be social. Make an effort to connect with people you enjoy being around. They can offer support, a shoulder to cry on, or a joke to give you a little boost. For winter SAD, taking a trip during the winter months to a sunny and warm location can help symptoms.
PRAY/MEDITATE. Healing the soul with prayer/meditation and gratitude is an important aspect in preventing and healing diseases. Numerous studies have indicated a positive relationship between these practices and mental health. God uses the strongest language in the Quran as he swears that he will elevate you if you are appreciative. “And [remember] when your Lord proclaimed, ‘If you are grateful, I will surely increase you [in favor]; but if you deny, indeed, My punishment is severe” (Quran 14:7). Being thankful helps to create an optimistic subconscious world, which governs 90 percent of our thoughts and actions. This affirmative energy increases optimism which makes us happier, prevents disease, and improves SAD.
I start here with every patient I see. I advise them to recall ten things they are grateful for as soon as they wake up, as this practice can influence the rest of the day. I also ask patients to place sticky notes all over their rooms so their subconscious is constantly in a state of positivity and appreciation. It is truly amazing watching them recover. Alhamdulillah (praise be to God)!
BRIGHTEN YOUR SURROUNDINGS. Waking up to a sunlit environment helps tremendously with SAD. Open blinds and sit closer to bright windows while at home or in the office. Using a 10,000-lux light box for about 30 to 60 minutes in the morning can also aid in treating SAD. A variety of these “artificial sunlight” lamps can be found online and wherever appliances are sold.
TAKE SUPPLEMENTS. Living a healthy life and boosting immunity always starts with the diet, but it’s not always easy to obtain all the necessary nutrients from food alone. Nutritional deficiencies often interfere with the body’s healing process, so adding minimal supplements, like vitamin D and omega-3, to the diet can expedite recovery by supporting the immune system, improving mood, and restoring the body to health and balance. (Be sure to verify your supplements are halal. Check out the box to the left for a listing of brands that are certified halal by IFANCA.)
With these simple steps, you can now take charge of your life and reverse or prevent Seasonal Affective Disorder. With optimal health, you can accomplish optimal spirituality and deepen your connection with God, allowing you to fully enjoy the changes of the seasons and the miraculous beauty unfolding all around.
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Madiha Saeed, MD, ABIHM, is a board-certified integrative holistic family physician in Illinois. She holds a director position for Documenting Hope, a national organization that helps educate the public about healing and preventing chronic disease in children. Follow Dr. Madiha Saeed on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/HolisticMomMD.