I know you’re probably thinking from the title that this blog has something to do with some type of sob story. Nope! Actually, SAD is an acronym for Seasonal Affective Disorder. What is Seasonal Affective Disorder you might ask? SAD is a form of depression that affects about 5% of adults, with 20% of people having some of the symptoms of this condition but not enough to actually be diagnosed for the disorder. SAD is a disorder that is seasonal and usually sets in around the fall and winter months when the days are growing shorter and there is less sunlight. Some people refer to it as the “winter blues.” If you are curious as to whether you have SAD here is a good website that gives you a checklist of symptoms: www.webmd.com. Although most people experience this only during the fall and winter months, there are some who experience it year round which is usually due to chemical imbalances in the brain.
Not too long ago, sometime around the first part of August of this year, I was sitting in a restaurant eating while waiting for my husband to pick me up. The restaurant was empty except for an elderly lady who sat down to eat a salad about three or four tables from me. I really can’t recall how the conversation got started but she struck up a conversation just commenting on the weather that day and how nice it was considering how hot it had been all summer. The temperatures were somewhere in the 70s and it was a really nice cool but sunny day. As the conversation went on she also mentioned how she was not looking forward to the fall and winter months because she always has a tendency to hibernate during these times. I expressed to her that I have had my bouts with wanting to hibernate as well and that a lot of people struggle with this. She also stated that she was taking medication for depression. I mentioned to her that after doing a lot of research and studying I learned that the reason people are so energetic and in such high spirits during the spring and summer months is because of the sunlight. And it’s actually due to good affects that sunlight gives us. Believe it or not we actually get vitamin D from the sun. I was shocked by that a couple of years ago when I found this out because most of the research regarding the effects of the sun in regards to your health is in relation to skin cancer and advising people to use sunscreen to protect themselves. Although this is definitely necessary, yet and still, since most of the attention is given to protection from the sun’s rays, most people would never really consider the fact that there could be health benefits to getting sunlight. There are many health benefits to soaking up the sun’s rays! Making sure you use plenty of sunscreen protection of course.
Here are some of the things that this wonderful creation of God (our sun) can do for you. Sunlight helps the body in the production of vitamin D that is necessary for calcium absorption and it directly affects our mood. Not only does sunlight help the body in producing vitamin D, it also helps to keep your neurotransmitters in good working order. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that send signals from cell to cell in our body, from one neuron to the next. Although there are numerous neurotransmitters, (neurological research has identified over 50 of them) there are four types of neurotransmitters that most people are familiar with that are most significant and directly related to mental health. They are: seratonin, norepinephrine, dopamine, and endorphin. Without getting all technical and too detailed in describing them, (believe me, there’s a lot to talk about when it comes to neuroscience. In case you didn’t know, our bodies are like a machine.) I will just give a brief description of what each one is responsible for in the body.
Seratonin is basically our mood regulator and is involved with our emotions, our perception, and how we feel. Too little seratonin can lead to depression, cause irritability, anger issues, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and a host of other emotional issues. People also tend to crave carbohydrates (typically ending up eating the wrong kinds) due to the fact that the body is really trying to increase seratonin levels in the brain. What carbohydrates do is raise the level of insulin, a hormone in the body, which in turn activates an amino acid called tryptophan. Tryptophan is then “ushered” into the brain. And guess what? Trytophan is a precursor to getting our seratonin juices flowing. Aaahhh!! No wonder we crave those bagels and that pizza so much during the fall and winter months. That’s our body’s way of trying to increase our seratonin levels to make us “feel good.” Um-hum! Also, when you are in very stressful situations, whether it’s job-related or whatever, this causes you crave carbohydrates (“raiding” the vending machine while at work…does this sound familiar?). Your body is looking for a way to relax. Seratonin does this for you. No wonder it’s so hard to stick to those diets when we’re all stressed out. It’s not so much appetite suppression that we need, it’s finding ways to keep our hormones in balance by involving ourselves in things that relax us. Exercise is one of them. Personally, I just happen to be one of those people who inherited genes that dictated that I would naturally have low levels of seratonin and have to make sure that I do everything that is necessary to boost this hormone. Maybe that’s why I love working out. A lot of people don’t like to exercise but there are times that I actually crave those workouts (mostly during stressful times in my life). Speaking of exercise, this brings me to the next neurotransmitter endorphin.
Endorphins function as neurotransmitters. This is our body’s natural morphine which is produced by the pituitary gland and hypothalamus during exercise. No wonder I love exercise so much. When you are in stressful situations, the body looks for ways to get those neurotransmitters working for you whether it’s through food or exercise. The body knows what it needs. By the way, in speaking of food that increases seratonin levels earlier in the blog, I looooove chicken. Always have. I can actually say that I am a bonafide chicken addict and according to my husband a chicken hawk ((laugh)). Most everybody in my family knows that I am the “chicken queen” because I can eat chicken for breakfast, lunch, and dinner almost everyday. I may take a break for a few days but after my separation from chicken, I just gotta have it! After years and years of my love affair with chicken I decided to do a little reading about this meat source derivative of a walking bird and found out that chicken has…drum roll…..tryptophan!! I’ve been telling my husband for years that there was a scientific explanation for my chicken addiction after being ridiculed and teased for my love for it. By the way, if you’re going to eat chicken, which is a good source of protein for those who are trying to lose weight, make sure you are getting good quality chicken that hasn’t been injected with hormones and chemicals. (That’s a whole other topic of discussion.) And while I’m speaking of healthy things to eat, going back to carbohydrates; there’s nothing wrong with eating pizza or any other carbohydrate as long as we make sure that we are taking in healthy carbs like whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, fruit and raw or steamed vegetables. It’s better to make the pizza yourself from scratch using whole wheat flour or unprocessed flour and throw some spinach or finely chopped broccoli on the pizza to make it even more healthy. There are even some vegan restaurants nowadays that make healthier pizzas and other foods that allow you to eat out and choose healthier options. Ok now back to the hormones.
Let’s talk a little about melatonin. Although this is not a neurotransmitter but a hormone, it’s something that needs to be discussed as well because it is directly related to other hormones and helps to regulate other hormones. Melatonin is the hormone responsible for controlling our sleep patterns. It regulates our circadian rhythm which is an internal 24-hour “clock” that tells us when to fall asleep and when to wake up. Without this we would all be insomiacs!! During those dark hours your body produces more melatonin, during the daylight hours your body produces less. This is the reason why people get jet lag or struggle with sleeping during the day when they have 2nd and 3rd shift jobs. It throws the body’s sleep cycle out of whack. Now on to norepinephrine.
Norepinephrine functions as a neurotransmitter and a hormone. The difference between a neurotransmitter and a hormone is simply that neurotransmitters are released from nerve cells whereas hormones are produced by the endocrine gland. Norepinephrine is secreted and released by the adrenal glands and by the noradrenergic neurons. It is a stress hormone that the brain releases during times of stress. When norepinephrine and its pathways are not functioning properly in the brain, a number of disorders can occur, including depression and attention disorders. Dopamine and norepinephrine are transported along the same pathway in the brain so if norepinephrine production is constricted in some way, dopamine production will also be affected. That takes us into a discussion about dopamine.
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that controls our brain processes, movement, emotional responses, and our ability to experience pleasure and pain. Dopamine is a precursor to norepinephrine. It plays a crucial role in both our physical and mental health. People with Parkinson’s disease have lost their dopamine producing ability. The neurons that transmit this hormone have died, thereby adversely affecting muscle movement. The brain of a person with Parkinson’s disease contains almost no dopamine. Parkinson’s patients are typically given drugs that can be converted to dopamine in the brain to help relieve their symptoms. Other disorders with dopamine production can cause a decline in neuro-cognitive functions such as memory and attention. This is one of the causes of Alzheimer’s.
Now that I’ve discussed a few of the main neurotransmitters and how these work to help us maintain a healthy state of mind and healthy bodies, I just want to end by saying that in regards to SAD and other mood disorders, a lot of times it is unrecognized by both the person who is experiencing it and family and friends. It is so much easier for people to recognize and acknowledge a person with a physical disorder or disability opposed to someone with a mental or emotional disorder because most people are not educated in regards to the neurological function of the body. Outward signs of illness can be responded to more readily because we can see them and therefore we are more compassionate toward those who have a physical illness. When it comes to brain disorders or emotional disorders such as depression, ADHD, autism, alzheimer’s, and bipolar disorder, people typically don’t understand what’s happening and therefore are not as compassionate with people who experience it. Sometimes these type of disorders are silent killers, if left untreated, that people often attribute to a person’s personality. They consider the person who is suffering from it to have a personality or character flaw because of the negative emotions that are displayed as a result of it but the negative emotions are usually the only signs and symptoms that are displayed. People don’t attribute these type of symptoms to brain disorders or mental illness since they so easily seem to be linked to personality issues.
SAD is something that can be managed with proper nutrition, healthy eating habits, and exercise. If it’s something that persists long-term beyond the seasonal period, you should seek the advice of a doctor and get medical attention. Make sure you are getting plenty of vitamin D from milk and/or supplements and try to get as much sunlight everyday as possible by going outside (even in the cold). During the winter take time to even enjoy the snow. Winter is one of my favorite seasons because of the “white stuff” that I love so much! Make sure you are getting plenty of exercise to boost those endorphins and stimulate the production of other vital hormones in your body that directly affect your mood. Also, don’t neglect much needed time for nourishing your spirit. Meditation through prayer, scripture reading, or yoga can have a tremendous positive effect on the mind and body.