By Dr Monique Hallee BScHK. December is not an easy time of year for a lot of people. The hours of sunlight are the lowest out of the entire year and for many people the burden of finances or loneliness comes to a peak. Whether or not you have a diagnosis of depression or are just feeling down, this article is for you.
There are a number of factors that can contribute to a low mood. Many of us notice a change with the short hours of sunlight, even if we do not meet the criteria of having “Seasonal Affective Disorder” (SAD). In those cases, taking every opportunity to get outside is important or at least to expose ourselves to bright lights during the day. One of the best routines people can develop is getting up at the same time every morning (no matter if it is a work day or not) and get exposure to a sunlamp at the same time every morning for about 20-30 minutes. This helps to keep our sleep-wake cycles regulated, and that can have a huge impact on our health.
Sleep is an important topic, as I have mentioned in past articles. Going to bed and waking at the same times each day is important. We need to develop a pattern of sleep that becomes routine so that we are better able to achieve stage 3 and 4 sleep (the “deep” and restorative sleep). If you have a formal diagnosis of depression and are taking medication that seems to help, but you feel “flat” in the day and unrested in the morning, you are probably not having enough deep sleep and that may be caused by your medication.
Unfortunately prolonged poor sleep can actually contribute to depression, so you may need to tweak your medication. If you know that your medication works by increasing serotonin only (such as Paxil, Zoloft and Prozac), you are likely getting too much stimulation to a particular type of serotonin receptor which will prevent you from getting a good sleep. There are ways to help turn down the stimulation to that receptor, so ask your doctor if you are concerned.
With such a large holiday culture that emphasizes family in December, many people also find this time of year lonely. Counselling might be a nice option for those who have more recently lost a loved one. Use this busy time of year to get more involved with your community. This may be through organizations, like churches which may need help preparing for services, or it might be offering to help watch over neighbours’ pets while they are gone on vacation. Consider going on vacation yourself too if that is an option.
If depression or depressed mood is more of a common occurrence than just around the holidays, ask yourself if there are any links. If you’re a woman, ask yourself “is it related to my menstrual cycles at all”? If the answer is “yes”, you may need to address a potential hormone imbalance. A more subtle pattern may relate to food/fluid intake. In practice I have seen moods improve after determining and eliminating various food sensitivities. Regardless of sensitivities or allergies, some people may be very affected by drops in blood sugars; for them, it is important to eat small, regular, high protein meals and to avoid sugar, certain carbohydrates, alcohol and caffeine. Another diet-related aid is making sure you are getting adequate fiber and water. This generally helps to promote daily bowel movements which can help eliminate toxins that make us feel sluggish and down.
While it can be extremely difficult to find motivation to do it, exercise is a huge help to lift most people’s spirits. Aim to do your exercise at a time of day where you know you have better motivation; this is usually the morning for most people. In order to stick to it, you might need to develop a habit first. So, even if you start by just walking down to the end of the block and back and increase the distance and speed of your walk, you will be doing yourself a favour.
When it comes to depression, there is no quick fix. There is an alteration of brain chemistry that is happening and whether you are taking prescription drugs, natural remedies or altering your lifestyle, it will take time before positive changes are felt. It is important to stick with your changes to see the benefits. Remember that, while you may feel that things are beyond your control, you always have control of your life; you can decide what path of action you take and how thoroughly you follow it. The power is in your hands.
If you have questions about your own health that you would like answered contact Dr Hallee. If your question is a good article topic, it could be featured in a column!
For further information, see a health care provider for more tips on how to keep you and your family healthy or, if you have a specific question, use the comments box below or email Today Media to have it answered.