The parched brown and orange leaves caught up in the crisp wind are slowing drifting down to scattered wrinkly patches on the sidewalks. Raining colours of autumn may be beautiful to the eye, but to me and many others around the globe it can signal the onset of dreary clouds of seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.
We have just set back the clocks , that yearly curse which I hate, making it all the worse for those of us who suffer from seasonal affective disorder. Since I am powerless over that, I at least fought back with a beautiful outing yesterday in the waning autumn sun, rather than waiting in long lines at the newly opened Picasso museum.
The sun is definitely heading south, leaving us humans well north of the equator, not only with less sun beams, but with a different angle of light. While it is responsible for producing those lovely fall colours, it also disturbs nerve cells, who react from the deprivation of light.
If the approaching winter is powerful enough to send some mammals into frenzied grazing, reducing their metabolism before they settle into a winter’s hibernation, then perhaps humans have evolved and adapted along similar lines from our prehistoric ancestors.
Seasonal affective disorder is rather insidious, in that you slowly start to feel very sluggish in your energy and thoughts. Motivation seems to disappear and your mood becomes blah to even sad, at times feeling like you want to cry. You find yourself wanting to sleep more than usual, and not wanting to get up in the morning. You start to feel indifferent towards activities that use to bring you joy. There is social withdrawal and a lot of people notice increase carbohydrate cravings and weight gain.
The symptoms are very similar to those of dysthymia, or low grade depression, but in some who have genetic tendencies to have mood disorders, these depressive symptoms can become worse. To me, it feels like a heavy cloud has settled around me, like the photo above captured this morning.
To understand this phenomena. we have to look at our pineal gland and melatonin. The pineal gland is a very small but powerful gland deep inside our brain, that can regulate our circadian rhythm based on degrees of light.
Melatonin is secreted by the pineal gland in the brain, which varies due to the amount and duration of light picked up by the retinas of our eyes, that is transmitted to the pineal gland. More light will decrease melatonin as it does in the spring and summer and there will be an increase of melatonin secretion in the fall and winter as the days shorten.
Serotonin, a neurotransmitter, is a precursor of melatonin, which means that melatonin is made of serotonin, and serotonin, by the way is made from tryptophan. Therefore increased melatonin production will lower available serotonin levels. Since serotonin levels can affect our mood, then any lowering of serotonin can also result in depressive symptoms.
In order for the body to get more tryptophan, which is an essential amino acid, it sets up a craving for carbohydrates! Strangely, eating more tryptophan rich foods will not help because other larger branched chained amino acids compete against tryptophan and get through the blood brain barrier easier, leaving poor tryptophan behind, much like a slow runner.
A meal rich in carbohydrates secretes insulin, which disturbs the competition, and allows an increase uptake of tryptophan entering the blood brain barrier; finally allowing “little” tryptophan to rush in! That is why a big carbohydrate rich feast generally will make you sleepy, as more tryptophan means more melatonin, which causes drowsiness.
Women seem to be more sensitive to melatonin than men. Not surprising that the majority of SAD patients are women. You have to have a repetitive pattern of seasonal symptoms to be diagnosed.
People from Scandinavia and the Baltic countries have higher instances of SAD, with the very strange exception of Iceland! A study, even found immigrants of Icelandic descent, living in Canada, to be immune. Either its genetic, or perhaps they get help from the Huldufólk or elves that live among them!
There has been a long-standing history of increased psychiatric admissions in the spring and fall for bipolar patients. You see more bipolar mania in the spring/summer and more depressive phases in the fall/winter.
Although SAD and bipolar disorder are two distinct and different disorders, the seasonal aspect of disturbing neurons is shared. Bipolar patients are extremely sensitive to all sorts for stimuli and changes. This includes light, loud music, sleeplessness, over socialization at parties, stress, caffeine and other stimulants.
People who have a genetic tendency towards depression, are more susceptible to fall into symptoms in the fall, that may worsen into full blown major depression, unless treated.
First line treatment is to get outside in the sun! Walking preferably around noon or any form of outdoor exercise helps lessen depressive symptoms.
Taking extra vitamin D helps also, and not using your sunglasses as you want those full spectrum rays to hit your retina. Light boxes that have 10,000 lux full spectrum light are very helpful if used in the morning for 30 to 60 minutes.
Getting away to a sunny vacation, along with outdoor walking, is my preferred treatment and I notice if I go in early fall, my SAD symptoms can be delayed.
If symptoms worsen, then antidepressants are always useful. The bottom line is to try exercise, sunshine and or light box therapy first , and keep on taking vitamin D and exercising outdoors, even if taking medication.
I generally restrict my carbohydrate intake everyday, except on Sundays, when I always make a beautiful pastry. Last Sunday is was a sumptuous pear tarte tatin, made with my homemade puff pastry and caramel sauce ,and last night a gorgeous Paris Brest, filled with salted caramel cream.
It was a perfect finale after spending yesterday outdoors in the sun, at the Parc de la Vallée aux Loups south of Paris. Plus there is nothing like a beautiful pastry to cheer you up and at the same time get some more tryptophan and serotonin going, wouldn’t you say?
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