Getting Through the Winter

(Originally published as a newsletter for The Dragontree Holistic Day Spa)

As the days get darker and wetter here in the Pacific Northwest, the number of melancholy patients in my practice ramps up. Interestingly, the October issue of the American Journal of Public Health featured a study linking living in damp, moldy homes to depression. If you are a patient of mine or have been reading these newsletters for a while, you might not be surprised to hear this, since it closely parallels what the Chinese have said about dampness for millennia. Environmental dampness is considered to have a stagnating and congealing effect on the flow of energy through the body. This is why many sufferers of chronic pain conditions, such as arthritis or fibromyalgia, complain that they feel stiffer and tighter in rainy weather.

If you have a tendency to get blue in the winter, there are a number of things you can do to reduce the season’s impact on your mood. First, it’s worth taking steps to keep your home dry and free of mold. Mold was already known to cause a number of health problems, and now we can add depression to the list. If possible, keep your bedroom above the ground floor. Click here to read the Environmental Protection Agency’s guide to cleaning up mold.

As seasonal affective disorder (SAD) has gained more attention, most people have heard of the role light plays in this condition. Bright, full spectrum light can be quite helpful at elevating mood. If you wish to try light therapy, keep in mind that incandescent bulbs (the common screw-in kind) cannot produce a true full spectrum. Full spectrum lights must be fluorescent. The newest full spectrum light panels are so efficient that you can usually be anywhere in the room while the light is on to benefit from it (you’re not confined to sitting directly in front of it).  I have one from www. that I like, though there are many other good brands available.

Winter’s lack of sunlight also impacts us by leading to vitamin D deficiency. Even if you live in a sunny place, if you’re in the north, the sun is low in the sky and its rays must pass through so much atmosphere before they reach us that the resulting light is too weak to induce our skin to produce vitamin D. Almost all adults can use 4,000 international units (IU’s) of supplemental vitamin D a day, which is best taken in an emulsified liquid form (speak to your health care provider about this). Kids need 1,000 IU’s a day. This is especially important for nursing moms, since babies are often deficient.

Vitamin D can also be found in cod liver oil, a form of fish oil, which itself is a valuable mood enhancer. The main difference between regular fish (body) oil and cod liver oil is that cod liver oil contains vitamins A and D. So, a basic rule of thumb is that cod liver oil is more appropriate during the cloudy time of year. Many of my patients are already taking fish oils when they first come to see me, but most are taking tiny doses. A good starting dose is one teaspoon morning and night. This is equivalent to five 1,000 mg soft gels each time, or ten a day. I sometimes have patients take as much as a tablespoon twice a day, which is a lot easier to consume as a liquid than the equivalent in softgels (30 a day!). If you decide to try fish oils, be sure you get a brand which is independently tested for heavy metal contamination. Our favorite brand, which we carry at The Dragontree, is Carlson’s. It’s lemon flavored and doesn’t taste fishy. Pregnant women should stick to regular fish oil, not cod liver oil, since vitamin A in large doses (or even moderate doses) can cause birth defects. (Beta carotene, which is converted to vitamin A in the body, is a safe alternative.)

Let’s not forget exercise – something most of us need more of anyway. In the winter, it can make a huge difference in mood. Find a form of exercise you enjoy and do it with other people around. The congealing factors of cold and dampness can be overcome by moving and warming your muscles, and the community you exercise in can be very supportive, especially if you have a schedule and others are expecting you.

Although many people think of acupuncture and Chinese medicine as being good for pain, these systems also include a very sophisticated and effective framework for addressing mental and emotional disorders. About 40% of my clientele come for treatment of anxiety and depression. Finally, if you have severe or unremitting depression, please seek the help of a mental health professional or call the Portland crisis line at (800) 717-9769.

Remember, starting December 23rd, the days will be getting longer again!