It happens every year: the sun rises a bit later in the day and then sinks before we’ve even begun to make dinner. The seasons also begin to shift, and in many places leaves flutter off trees and snow piles up on the side of roads. The decrease in daylight and the changing seasons is not merely an external phenomenon, but it has real effects on our mood and behaviors. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – informally known as the “winter blues” – is a type of depression resulting from changing seasons, and it affects people's moods, as well as desire to eat, sleep, and be active. Although western medicine offers many ideas and solutions for SAD, traditional chinese medicine (TCM) takes a more holistic approach that focuses on natural remedies.
Symptoms of SAD
A common symptom of SAD is feeling sad and overwhelmed with negative thoughts on most days. These emotions that often arise with sadness, such as hopelessness, are not without cause. Sunlight produces vitamin D, which is an important vitamin in regulating serotonin levels. Serotonin plays a key role in many bodily functions, an important one being mood. So when the hours of sunlight decrease and the weather limits people's exposure to direct sunlight, one may suffer from vitamin D deficiency and feel the impact of lowered serotonin on their mood.
Another symptom attributed to SAD is lethargy and poor sleep. When our eyes lack direct sunlight each day, we overproduce the chemical melatonin. Melatonin helps manage our sleep-wake schedule and circadian rhythms, so an abundance of this chemical leads to feeling sluggish. Additionally, extra melatonin during the day confuses our brains, so at night some may suffer from insomnia.
Change in appetite and weight-gain is also a common symptom of SAD. With the changing weather and sunlight, our biological clocks get confused. These clocks regulate mood, sleep, and appetite, so when they are forced to shift, our bodies feel out-of-tune and it can often be hard to regain a daily schedule. This loss of organization can lead many people to eat differently, particularly carbohydrate-heavy diets.
TCM Treatment Suggestions
Foods and Herbs
TCM believes in the balance of yin and yang within our bodies, and the changing of seasons often throws off that balance, which can result in SAD. In order to restore that balance, TCM suggests eating certain foods and herbs. Some of those special foods include:
- Ginseng – ginseng is an herb that increases energy levels and combats stress that can result from decreased sunlight. Ginseng is easy to add to foods such as soup, but can also be consumed via capsules or tea.
- Cordyceps – cordyceps is another Chinese herb that helps with energy deficiency by increasing the production of ATP, which is the energy used by cells to complete cellular functions.
- Reishi mushrooms – another suggested food to consume is reishi mushrooms. These mushrooms are incredibly common in TCM practices because they are known to open the crown chakra and release any stored stress. This herbal supplement calms the nervous system by supporting cortisol and adrenal levels and decreasing brain inflammation.
- Vitamin D – eating foods rich in vitamin D is also important as sunlight exposure may be insufficient. Such foods include salmon, sardines, egg yolks, and orange juice.
Qi is our body’s life force and energy. In the winter, we tend to have more sedentary lifestyles, and this leads to stagnant qi. Stagnant qi can lead to a bad mood and poor health. In order to get your blood and qi moving, TCM recommends exercising. Whether that’s swimming, taking a walk, yogo, or doing a more intense cardio workout, moving your body will make you feel more productive and healthy. It’s a bonus if you can exercise outside in natural light!
Acupuncture is a common practice in TCM because it– like exercise – helps balance the flow of our qi.. Specific acupuncture points strengthen the connection between our organs and release endorphins, thus helping to relieve symptoms of SAD. Light therapy, although not specific to TCM, alleviates symptoms of sunlight deficiency. Setting up a 10,000 lux lamp indirectly in front of your face can mimic the effects of the sun and help recenter your biological clock.
Modern science has not (yet) figured out a way to stop the seasons from changing, but TCM offers powerful, natural methods to alleviate those unwelcome symptoms of SAD. TCM promotes a balanced lifestyle full of consuming nourishing, energizing foods, exercise, and mindfulness. These strategies are simple to implement – even in the dark of winter – and will lift up your spirits!
Yes, the seasons change every year. Yes, the hours of sunlight will decrease. But the cyclicality of the world means that eventually those flowers will bloom and the sun will sink well after you’ve eaten dessert. Continue to pay attention to your body, and soon the snow will melt.