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Depression in autumn and winter
A winter depression occurs regularly in the dark season and puts those affected in a seasonal mood. Above all, a lack of light seems to be responsible for this temporary and recurrent depression. In holistic medicine, however, other factors such as disturbed metabolic processes and a negative inner attitude towards winter are also assigned a certain importance. In most cases (natural) light therapy, St. John's wort, lots of exercise in the fresh air and other home remedies help to counteract and prevent the symptoms.
Definition: winter depression and winter blues
Winter depression, also known as autumn blues or winter blues, has now been recognized as a special form of depression and is also referred to in specialist circles as a seasonally dependent depression (English: seasonal affective disorder, SAD).
The winter depression appears regularly in the dark season from November to February, although this is subject to regional differences. Hence the name winter depression. Generally speaking, winter blues are more likely to be associated with a mild form of this depressive disorder or mood.
About nine percent of the German population suffer from this type of depression, although women are affected much more frequently by mood lows.
Winter depression: signs and symptoms
Many people feel mood swings that vary with the weather and season. But this is not the same as depression. One only speaks of a winter depression if symptoms only occur during the dark season that can be assigned to the typical depressive symptoms. In winter blues, these signs are generally less pronounced.
In order to speak of depression, the following symptoms are usually decisive:
- long-lasting depressive mood, depression,
- Lack of interest,
- Change in appetite and body weight,
- Sleep disorders,
- negative thoughts about yourself.
In contrast to the general clinical picture of depression, winter depression is not accompanied by the usual problems with falling asleep and staying asleep, but shows a noticeably increased need for sleep. Longer sleep phases are usually not restful and those affected feel tired and exhausted during the day. Loss of appetite and weight loss also occur less, but there is an increased need to eat with a desire for carbohydrates and sweet foods, which often leads to weight gain.
Other signs include listlessness, tiredness (during the day), poor concentration and performance, social withdrawal and other upsets, which can be accompanied by worries, fears and irritability.
In addition to the psychological signs, there are also regular physical effects. The following complaints often occur to those affected:
- A headache,
- Lump in throat,
- Breathing disorders,
- Chest tightness and heartache,
- Muscle tension,
The connection between lack of light and depressive disorders is considered to be scientifically indisputable, including winter depression. Nevertheless, other factors can also play a role in a holistic view.
Lack of light as a major trigger
The lack of light in the period from November to February is primarily responsible for the development of winter depression, which is said to affect the brain metabolism. The pineal gland, which is located above the midbrain, is sensitive to light-dark stimuli and reacts by releasing the hormone melatonin. Among other things, an elevated melatonin level has a restrictive effect on attention and influences the release of further hormones.
In addition, the lack of light creates an imbalance in the household of the neurotransmitters. A deficiency of the "feel-good hormone" serotonin should play a special role here. The exact relationships are still the subject of scientific research.
Another important aspect is the development of a vitamin D deficiency, which is caused by the lack of UV radiation from the sun in the winter months.
Winter depression caused by toxins in the body?
In traditional Indian medicine, Ayurveda, the development of depression - and the symptoms associated with it - is attributed to an accumulation of toxins in the body. These, referred to as "Ama" Slags can be both physical and psychological in nature. On a physical level, they arise from undigested food components and non-excreted waste products of the metabolism. Psychologically, the slags in Ayurveda theory arise from negative feelings that are held on.
In holistic medicine, too, in addition to the lack of light, an excess of metabolic breakdown products and toxins are suspected as triggers of depression. These arise, among other things, from acidification, which leads to disturbed fine blood flow to the tissue with lack of oxygen and as a result, waste products cannot be adequately transported away and excreted from the body, according to the theory.
In addition, it is suspected that a lack of vitamins and enzymes results from the disturbed metabolism or is even a factor in it. Just like with chronic fatigue and exhaustion, it is assumed that the liver is overloaded as a "detoxification center".
The inner attitude to winter
A little noticed aspect is the negative attitude and associated expectation of the cold winter time. The passing lightness of summer is often mourned with increased conviviality, events and leisure opportunities as a painful loss and the opportunities of this introverted time are not used. For example, what has been experienced and new can “settle” in the time of a temporary withdrawal, can be sorted and integrated internally.
Winter depression: treatment options
Drug therapy, especially with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), should only be given for very severe winter depression. The most recognized treatment method is light therapy. In many cases, however, natural treatment methods and home remedies for winter depression already help or even prevent them. Long walks, as a kind of natural light therapy, or natural remedies such as St. John's wort, for example, show good efficacy in alleviating the symptoms.
Light, colors, air and movement
Again and again, medically supervised light therapies are recommended to drive away the winter depression. Those affected are exposed to artificial light for half an hour a day. A daily walk of around an hour can have a similar effect. This means that sufficient daylight can be absorbed for the formation of important hormones and at the same time the body gets enough exercise and fresh air. Especially walks in nature have a relaxing and mood-enhancing effect
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), ten minutes of daylight per day with an overcast sky are sufficient to produce the required amount of the hormone calciferol (vitamin D).
Colors, like natural light, also have a positive effect on the mood. It is therefore advisable to surround yourself with bright warm colors in winter, whether in the apartment, when cooking or when choosing clothes.
If a tendency to winter depression is already known, a professionally supervised fasting cure in autumn with a subsequent switch to low-acid and vital nutrient-rich food can help to prevent the symptoms. In naturopathy, measures for deacidification and detoxification are taken in support of individual diagnostics and the change in diet is accompanied.
St. John's wort against winter depression
St. John's wort is considered a "sun catcher" against winter depression. The plant has long been known for its antidepressant effect and is now widely recognized in medical circles, especially with mild symptoms. However, reliable studies on the benefits of the medicinal plant against depression are still lacking, which is why administration and effects are considered to be controversial.
In particular, the ingredient hypericin makes it more light-sensitive when absorbed appropriately, which has a balancing effect on melatonin formation in the pineal gland as well as on serotonin levels in the brain. Nevertheless, it is assumed that only the interaction of the various active ingredients in the medicinal plant unfolds the full spectrum of activity.
Self-medication is strongly discouraged. Which dosage and whether St. John's wort may be taken at all must be determined by a professional. Higher doses require a prescription.
But it is also important to do something good for yourself in the dark and rather dreary season. Depending on individual needs, these can be very different activities and methods. (jvs, cs)
Author and source information
This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.
Dr. rer. nat. Corinna Schultheis
- Pschyrembel: Clinical dictionary. 267th, revised edition, De Gruyter, 2017
- Pro Psychotherapie e.V. (ed.): Www.therapie.de, Diagnoses & Therapies - Mental Disorders- Winter Depression, access: 04.09.2019, therapie.de
- Müller, Thomas: Winter blues - this is the reason for the low mood, in: Ärzte Zeitung, issue 121, year 2014, Ärzte Zeitung
- Lad, Vasand and Frawley, David: Ayurveda Herbal Medicine, Winpferd Verlag, 2000
- Friebel-Röhring, Gisela and Hoffmann, Klaus: Food for your soul, Ariane Verlag, 1994
- Friedrich, Ina: Eurobooks Guide - St. John's Wort, Eurobooks, 1998
ICD codes for this disease: F33ICD codes are internationally valid encodings for medical diagnoses. You can find yourself e.g. in doctor's letters or on disability certificates.