Changes and mental wellbeing
Change is never easy to get used to. A change in routine or season can affect our mental wellbeing. Autumn and winter are characterised by busier schedules, and that yearly feeling of the “winter blues”. Shorter days make you feel you haven’t done enough before the day ends and keeping a balance between work and life is a challenge. It’s normal to have some days when you feel down but if you feel down for weeks and you can’t get motivated to do activities you normally enjoy, see your doctor. This is especially important if your sleep patterns and appetite have changed or if you feel hopeless, think about suicide, or turn to alcohol for comfort or relaxation. For some people this could be more than just winter blues, it could be a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Don’t be sad!
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons. For most people with SAD, symptoms start in the autumn and continue into the winter months due to the reduced levels of sunlight, sapping your energy and making you feel moody. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin, a brain chemical that affects mood that may trigger depression. The change in season can also disrupt the balance of the body’s level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood. Less often, SAD causes depression in the spring or early summer.
On the other hand, Adjustment Disorder is a short-term condition that occurs when a person has great difficulty coping with, or adjusting to, a particular source of stress, such as a major life change, loss, or event. The type of stress that can trigger an adjustment disorder/stress response syndrome varies depending on the person but are always related to a major event in one’s life.
Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder and adjustment disorder are similar and include the following: less energy, trouble concentrating, fatigue, greater appetite (or less in summer SAD), change in sleep patterns, anxiety (nervousness), withdrawal or isolation from people and social activities, Increase in the use of alcohol or other drugs. Many people feeling like this are not prepared and do not realise that there is a seasonal pattern. Most of the time people affected do not seek medical advice and might resort to multivitamins at the least. Is this the right thing to do? First of all trying to strike a balance is very important, take steps to keep your mood and motivation steady throughout the year. Sleep is important as it has a positive effect on mood and performance as explained further on and whilst supplements can help they might not be enough.
While certain vitamins and minerals do help relieve fatigue multivitamins are designed for those who struggle eating healthily and to support an active lifestyle. One of the biggest problems with multivitamins is that people presume they are a good supplement for a healthy, balanced diet. They’re not. A good diet is always the best way to achieve overall good health. One might not require a full spectrum of vitamins as a supplement.
Studies show that a lack of certain dietary nutrients contribute to the development of mental disorders. Notably, essential vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids are often deficient in the general population according to studies based in America and other developed countries; and are exceptionally deficient in patients suffering from mental disorders. It has been shown that daily supplements of vital nutrients often effectively reduce patients’ symptoms.
Nutrients of particular importance for mental wellbeing
Iron > Mild iron deficiency might go unnoticed as the symptoms of fatigue appear when deficiency is severe. Women are more prone to iron deficiency, they need lots of iron to make up for the loss of minerals during monthly menstruation. With a recommended daily intake of 18 milligrams, a multi-vitamin containing iron could be beneficial. Men should be careful not to get an overload in iron, resulting in vitamin toxicity.
Omegas-3 fatty acids > The importance of omega-3 fatty acids for physical health is now well recognised and there is increasing evidence that omega-3 fatty acids may also be important to mental health. The two main omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) have important biological functions in the CNS. DHA is a major structural component of neuronal membranes, and changing the fatty acid composition of neuronal membranes leads to functional changes in the activity of receptors and other proteins embedded in the membrane phospholipid. EPA has important physiological functions that can affect neuronal activity. Epidemiological studies indicate an association between depression and low dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids.
Potassium > Lack of potassium can lead to difficulty staying asleep throughout the night as an electrolyte, potassium is a positive charged ion that must maintain a certain concentration in order to carry out its functions, which includes interacting with sodium to help control nerve impulse transmission, muscle contraction and heart function. In fact, maintaining the proper ratio of potassium to sodium is an important factor for optimal health. It’s generally recommended that you take in five times more potassium than sodium, but because most diets are so rich in high-sodium processed foods, most people get double the amount of sodium compared to potassium from their diet. Potassium is found mostly in fruits and vegetables.
Magnesium is deficient in our diets. It is effective against stress, depression, anxiety and fatigue.
Vitamin B6 b12 are also beneficial to the nervous system.
Ginkgo > Ginkgo is a herb used for memory disorders including Alzheimer’s disease and for thinking disorders related to depression. It is also used for conditions that seem to be due to reduced blood flow in the brain, especially in older people. These conditions include memory loss, headache, ringing in the ears, vertigo, difficulty concentrating, mood disturbances, and hearing disorders. Some people use it for other problems related to poor blood flow in the body, including leg pain when walking (claudication), and Raynaud’s syndrome (a painful response to cold, especially in the fingers and toes).
Ginseng > Ginseng is a herb from Chinese medicine that can improve mood, boost physical endurance, fight fatigue and has many other uses. Because ginseng may affect blood sugar levels, people taking drugs for diabetes should not use ginseng without talking to their doctor first. Ginseng can interact with Warfarin. Do not take ginseng without consulting your doctor or pharmacist if you take any medications.
Caffeine may amplify ginseng’s stimulant effects. To avoid side effects from ginseng, it is suggested that ginseng shouldn’t be used for more than three months. After a break you can begin taking it again for another few weeks or months.
The way you feel while you’re awake depends in part on what happens while you’re sleeping. During sleep, your body is working to support healthy brain function and maintain your physical health. In children and teens, sleep also helps support growth and development. Children and teens who are sleep deficient may feel angry and impulsive, have mood swings, feel sad or depressed, or lack motivation.
Sleep helps your brain work properly. While you’re sleeping, your brain is preparing for the next day. It’s forming new pathways to help you learn and remember information. Studies show that a good night’s sleep improves learning. Whether you’re learning math, how to play the piano, or how to drive a car, sleep helps enhance your learning and problem-solving skills. Sleep also helps you pay attention, make decisions, and be creative. Studies also show that sleep deficiency alters activity in some parts of the brain. If you’re sleep deficient, you may have trouble making decisions, solving problems, controlling your emotions and behaviour, and coping with change. Sleep deficiency also has been linked to depression, suicide, and risk-taking behavior.
Sleep is regulated by melatonin. Scientists found that if you live by the sun’s schedule, you are more likely to go to bed at least an hour earlier, wake up an hour earlier, and be less groggy, because your internal clock and external reality are more in sync. The sun adjusts your clock to what may be its natural state, undoing the influence of light bulbs. Camping could help you reset an internal clock gone haywire from modern living.
Since humans evolved in the glow of firelight, the yellow, orange and red wavelengths don’t suppress melatonin production the way white and blue wavelengths do. If you want to protect your melatonin cycle, when the sun goes down, you would shift to a low wattage bulb with yellow, orange, or red light. Turning on a light in the middle of the night, even for a short moment, such as when you get up to go to the bathroom, will disrupt your melatonin production and interfere with your sleep.
Ideally, it is best to increase melatonin levels naturally with exposure to bright sunlight in the daytime (along with full spectrum fluorescent bulbs in the winter) and absolute complete darkness at night. If that isn’t possible, you may want to consider a melatonin supplement.
SAD is more common than one would think but it can be managed. Being aware is the first step towards its management. Next is knowing one’s challenges and planning how to overcome them.
All references used in this article are available upon request from the author.
This article is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice. It is intended as a sharing of knowledge and information.