Seasonal Affective Disorder is Not a Seasonal Disorder

September 2010

Rainy season has started in Vancouver. For the past couple of mornings, I have woken up and been surprised to see that it’s almost 9:00am — it still feels like early morning. There are increasing numbers of people complaining of low energy, sleepiness and lack of motivation. This is the season that some people start to experience so called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also known as winter depression or winter blues.

However, Chinese Medicine believes that the “Seasonal Affective disorder” is not seasonal. The root of the condition has been there long before the season comes. This unique perspective provides more treatment possibility for people who are affected by it.

According to Wikipedia, SAD is a mood disorder in which people who have normal mental health throughout most of the year experience depressive symptoms in the winter or other seasons. The main symptoms are: difficulty waking up in the morning, low energy, over sleep, difficulty concentrating, low motivation, feeling low and sad, lack of interest in activities and wanting to withdraw. Western Medicine believes that it is related with low light level and the body’s regulation of serotonin and melatonin level.

Chinese Medicine believes that SAD is not a seasonal disorder because the internal imbalance that causes the condition has been there during the time that people feel “normal”. The seasonal changes are the external triggers that bring on the symptoms.

SAD is a manifestation of Yin and Yang Qi imbalance in the body. The Yin and Yang are two energy polarities. Yin energy represents qualities like darkness, coldness, dampness, slowness, passiveness, stillness, sleep, night, quietness etc, and the Yang energy represents the opposite qualities such as brightness, warmth, dryness, fast, activeness, movement, wakefulness, day time, loudness etc. The two energies should maintain a dynamic balance. If the balance is off then symptoms will occur. If your body is usually lacking Yang Qi, you may tend to feel cold more often, not very active, have a tendency toward being overweight, prefer quietness, and tend to be more introverted and withdrawn. If you already lack Yang Qi, when the fall comes, you may be affected by the seasonal changes more than those who have enough Yang.

As human beings, you are part of the nature. Your energy is affected by nature’s energy. Even though the science has developed so far that humans have gone to the moon, we still can’t change the fact that the moon has been influencing our physiology and psychology since ancient time. Recent scientific researches also try to map the correlation between weather change and the occurrence of certain illnesses, such as barometric change with occurrence of migraine headaches and temperature change with respiratory diseases. The fluctuation of Yin and Yang in nature affects the body’s Yin and Yang just like the waxing and waning of the moon changes the tides and women’s menstrual cycle. The Yin and Yang energies wax and wane according to seasonal change, basically according to the movement of the Sun, which is one of the most important source of Yang energy for the earth and for we humans. In northern hemisphere during spring time as the earth tilts toward the sun, the days get longer, the temperature gets warmer, and we have more Yang energy in nature. This is when we see that the plants start to grow, animals become active, and we feel more active as well. When autumn and winter approach, the Yang energy starts to wane and Yin energy starts to dominate. We see in nature that the days are getting shorter and darker, the leaves are falling, and animals are becoming less active and going back to their hiding places. In Vancouver, there is more rain in the fall and winter time. Dampness also belongs to Yin energy. Therefore, Vancouver has more Yin Qi than places that have dry winters. When the Yin energy dominates in nature, we naturally become less active, want to sleep more, feel less energetic, and our metabolism slows down. If your body is well-balanced, you will feel this change but the seasonal change will not cause any physiological and psychological problems. However, if your body is not balanced, if you are already lacking Yang energy, then the changes in nature can throw you farther into imbalance and you will start to show symptoms of winter blues.

I hear people often say,’ “I am fine during other times; it is only during winter that I start to have this depression.” Although you don’t feel any symptoms during other times, you have an imbalance all year long, and this imbalance makes you susceptible to the changes in the fall. With the Yang energy waning in nature, if your body’s Yang energy is not enough, the Yin energy will become excessive. This excessiveness of Yin energy will show up as symptoms such as low energy, passiveness, sleepiness, low motivation, etc.

Knowing the causes of SAD, Chinese Medicine is able to provide a more in-depth treatment for SAD. Treatments are not only limited to the winter months, but also during the seasonal change, even long before fall and winter. Balancing the internal Yin/Yang energy is the most important focus. You can’t change the energy in nature (unless you are willing to move to somewhere sunny and warm during winter and come back during summer), but if your Yin and Yang in the internal environment becomes more balanced you will be able to adjust better to the change in nature. And then the waning of Yang energy in nature will no longer have a devastating effect on your physical and mental health. The treatments not only help you to do better in one winter, but also prevent the same symptoms in next winter. Both the herbal treatment and acupuncture treatment target to restore the balance by increasing the body’s Yang Qi and helping Qi flow smoothly. Acupuncture is believed to be able to regulate the secretion of serotonin and melatonin, which are two important neurotransmitters that are involved in SAD. Herbal medicines such as Ginseng, Astragulus, He Huan Hua are well documented to have the effect of increasing energy and alertness and of improving mood.

A lot of people lead extremely busy lives. After a year of exercising their will to push forward they are tired and stressed. This constant striving consumes the body’s Yang Qi and creates Yin/Yang imbalance. As the Yang energy in nature wanes, the body’s Yang energy, which is the energy of being active and pushing forward, also fades and you may find yourselves less able to keep pushing. Another factor to consider is the amount of pressure we put on ourselves to perform, to be active, be productive. This means that to the extent that we feel tired and less motivated, we will tend to believe that there is something wrong with us. And the idea that “there’s something wrong with me”, having the desire to keep pushing yet lacking the energy to do so, can lead to self-doubt and self-blame which then becomes the source of anxiety and depression. Again, this is not a seasonal condition. If you don’t change your life style and your perspective of what life is, this “Seasonal Disorder” can keep plaguing you far beyond the fall and winter seasons.

If we look at nature, winter is the season when most plants shed their leaves and store their energy into their roots. When spring comes, they will use the energy to achieve more growth. For human beings, the winter season is also the time to lie low, to relax, and to recuperate. If you don’t follow the flow of nature, and don’t conserve your energy in winter, you will further deplete your energy and sow the seeds of many chronic illnesses in the future.

If you are usually affected by the SAD, besides using a full-spectrum lamp and doing regular exercise, this is also time to deal with your internal imbalance. Only when this internal imbalance is dealt with will you prevent your seasonal slump. Please call Dr. Judy Zhu to improve your Yang Qi so that you will have better physical and mental health despite the rain and coldness of the seasons.