Shine a light: an article about Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression, in which the onset is related to changes in seasons. Symptoms commonly start in the fall and continue through the winter months, due to declining daylight hours and temperature, sapping your energy, turning your body into a bag of bricks and giving you the “winter blues”, to put it lightly.

The TCM approach is unique and relevant as it takes many of its cues from the season and changes in climate that we live in. The dark of winter, especially our dreary, rainy west coast winters align at this time of year with the “Water element”. Water being the most yin of the 5 elements (Earth > Metal > Water > Wood > Fire), it is associated with coldness, low energy, darkness and a natural tendency of our energy to turn inwards. The ancient founding texts of Chinese Medicine, “The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine” states, “In winter, all is hidden”. You will observe in the natural world, that winter is a time of rest, an opportunity to replenish itself for the upcoming rise of energy in the spring. In turn, this is a time of year for introspection, rest, rebuilding and embracing the darkness. It is only natural to succumb to the desire to lie low.

Here are 3 different approaches from your H&H acupunks on their personal preferences for addressing the seasonal blues.

Stefanie’s Approach
Diet therapy and herbal medicine can often be overlooked when assessing your health and self care regime. You may have heard of eating with the seasons, according to Chinese Medicine some of those foods for winter may include root vegetables like beets, yams, turnips, carrots and squash, foods that are cooked slower over a longer period of time, and warm foods like soups and strews.

When addressing Seasonal Affective Disorder, diet can play a strong role in how your body is physically feeling and how you are coping mentally and emotionally.

One of the notable things about winter is the cold. We can look at this as the body not getting, or generating enough heat on its own to function optimally. This can manifest as a cold body and limbs, weakened immune system, and sluggish digestion. Another notable winter trait is the feeling of stillness or being stuck, we can look at this as a sort of stagnation or lack of movement in the body. This can manifest as physical aches and pains, emotional upset or turmoil, headaches, and stress.

How can diet help with these symptoms? By using foods whose properties (hot, cold, bitter, spicy, etc) nourish the body during the winter, you will be more equipped to thrive physically and emotionally.

One of my “go-to’s” during the winter season is bone broth. Bone broth is best made by simmering organic animal bones in a slow cooker for 12+ hours. Bone broth is mineral rich (calcium and phosphorus) and full of constituents that benefit the body in numerous ways (cartilage is great for the joints, immunity and inflammation in the bowels and bone marrow helps blood cell function, which helps boost the body’s immunity as well). If I need an extra boost I will add additional
herbs like Huang Qi ( astragalus), dang gui (angelica root), and gou qi zi (goji berry).

Warm and spicy foods can be great additions to your diet in the winter, in moderation, to warm the body, aid digestion, and promote movement of qi and blood which will help with any stagnation. Some of my favorites are ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, and licorice; all of these can be boiled to make tea.

Susan’s approach
Feel your feelings. If you are tired, and bummed out, then feel that. There is nothing wrong with you for feeling this way. There is never anything wrong with you. It sucks to feel bad, but it is an essential part of being human. Don’t take it so personally. Be curious about it. Notice how things change. The trick is to not get caught in those feelings.
Feel them, but don’t believe the stories you tell yourself to justify those feelings you are having.

Change your expectations. Winter is not summer. You will feel different.

Move your body. Eat good food (see Stefanie’s advice) . But if you need to fill your belly full of chocolate chip cookies to get through a lonely cold night, then go for it. Notice the things that overall make you feel not so bad and do more of that. Don’t beat yourself up; practice self-compassion. Spend time with people you like spending time with. Get outside. Find some trees or a body of water. Breath. Let yourself rest when you can.

Notice the moments. Appreciate the ones you can. Ask for help when you need it.
Come get pokes. Let yourself feel the feels.

Christina’s Approach
Our bodies during this distinct change in
daylight hours and climate will consume more energy and calories to keep you warm. Your body’s thermostat originates in the Kidney organ and specifically, Kidney yang, which functions as your furnace and in the west coast chill, it can work over time. I like to think of Kidney yang synonymous with thyroid-adrenal function, which regulates your metabolism and specifically, body heat and stamina/energy levels. Weakness of Kidney yang can result in a plethora of symptoms including sensitivity to cold + cold extremities, lumbar weakness, weak, dull hair and finger nails and restless sleep and mood. Therefore, in our damp-cold climate, this is an important time of year to protect your Kidney yang. Here are some suggestions:

  • Dress for the weather: Keep vulnerable parts including your ankles/calves, neck/chest and flanks (home of Kidneys) covered to prevent excessive loss of your precious yang. This is also the time of year to avoid going outside with wet hair!
  • Thyroid/adrenal supportive foods: (see Stefanie’s post) + include seafood, homemade liver pate, organic eggs, sea veggies, good fats (butter, olive oil, coconut oil, avocado) to provide all the necessary trace nutrients for their healthy function and maintenance of temperature regulation and metabolism
  • Vitamin D drops: with shorter days & winter clothing, there is less sun exposure, take your liquid sunshine for optimism
  • Practice the nordic tradition of “Hygge” (pronouced hooga): as per Susan’s suggestion, spend meaningful cozy time, be social or not, be productive or not, but the key is to stay warm and comfortable and sync up with the flow of the season, which is low and quiet and to be introspective and observant with what is happening around you.
  • The warming TCM tradition of moxabustion: the igniting of the herb “Artemesia vulgaris” and warming specific acupoints on the body. It is said that only a few things can regenerate Kidney yang, namely, herbs, qi gong and moxabustion.

Those who are interested in a traditional way to build and protect your Kidney yang, might we suggest our Moxa 101 workshop on Sunday Jan. 29!

Hopefully, this information sheds so light on this dark time of year.
We wish you warmth, health and coziness :)

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