Treating Seasonal Depression with Traditional Chinese Medicine

Clinically referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), the winter blues can weigh you down during the dark months of the year. An estimated ten million Americans (two-thirds of them women) suffer every year. Symptoms include depression, irritability, headaches, fatigue and lethargy, increased appetite, carbohydrate cravings, difficulty concentrating, and decreased libido. We often get the question: Is the treatment of Seasonal Depression with Traditional Chinese Medicine possible?

In the Western world, it is thought that because people have less exposure to sunlight, they experience a decrease in melatonin levels in the brain. Genetics, hormones, stress and other factors may dictate how one is affected by SAD. Western medicine practitioners often to turn to light therapy, and, in some cases, antidepressants to alleviate symptoms.

The Traditional Chinese Medicine approach explains this SAD as the result of a yin-yang imbalance. While yin, the feminine energy, relates to nourishment, it is also associated with cold and darkness, and that it is negative in sign means that it refers also to decreasing and descending aspects of nature. Yang, by contrast, is the male energy, associated with heat and light as well as expanding and ascending aspects. These opposing yet complementary energies are associated with the seasonal cycle, and late autumn and winter find us in the yin cycle, which beings on autumnal equinox and lasts until the spring equinox. It is natural to feel an increase in yin-related tendencies such as isolation and sadness. Those whose makeup is naturally more yin (due to gender, genetics, environment, etc.) may feel these effects more strongly, and hormonal changes can also influence these feelings.

As the winter months profoundly deplete our core energy, it is not surprising that many people find themselves craving quick-fix, high-calorie energy sources so that extra energy can be stored as fat that helps keep the body warm. We use a lot of energy in winter fending off the cold, which can make us feel drained, and we may notice ourselves become more emotionally and physically sensitive to our own surroundings. Stress, poor diet, and lack of sleep many of us are too familiar with due to hectic schedules (not to mention drafty apartments and overzealous radiators) further deplete energy, leading to both a depressed immunity and mood.

While a few individuals may require psychotherapy or medication, there are many other ways to treat SAD:

  • The first step to take is to ensure you have proper nourishment and rest as well as a comfortable living environment.
  • Stock your kitchen with vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables (try dark leafy greens and baked root vegetables) as well as “warming” foods like whole grains, nuts and seaweed to use in soups and other hearty dishes.
  • Give yourself time, space to rest and to be reflective, a natural inclination we experience in the winter months.
  • Make sure your thermostat (if you have one) is set to a comfortable temperature. Invest in a space heater or humidifier if necessary.
  • Try to go to bed early and wake up early.
  • Work by a window if possible, in order to get some direct sunlight.
  • Exercise can also boost one’s mood. This a great time of year for outdoor sports such as skiing. Indoor stretches, yoga, and tai chi also do wonders to boost the immunity. It is important to stay active without overstraining the mind or body.
  • Acupuncture, especially when combined with heat therapy and yang-fortifying (or “warming”) herbs can be very effective in treating SAD symptoms. It helps guide the body back to balance and regulate the neurological and endocrine systems. Your TCM practitioner can prescribe the herbs that will best complete your personal treatment.

Taking these simple steps can help you stay well all winter. A strong mind and body are your best bet for braving the elements.

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