Fallback is Go Time for conquering SAD

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Submitted by Christopher MacDonald

The end of Daylight-Saving Time seems to mark the day when our fair-weather friend, the sun, turns snowbird and bugs-out for the Southern Hemisphere. Then over the next four months, it increasingly feels like we Canadians are perpetually fumbling for our house keys in the murky gloom of the winter predawn, or dusk.

Worse, for those of us who suffer from SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder, the lack of light in winter can make it feel like it is one’s joy in life, and not just the house keys, that has disappeared into the bleak January snow drifts. The good news is SAD is treatable, beginning with an appointment with a medical doctor. If one has started already- great! If not, then Fallback is go time for conquering SAD this winter.

Since the complexity of human nature, like deep murky water, refracts and obscures the etiology of depression, prevailing over it requires deploying a triad of biological, psychological and social interventions. Just as using a three-pronged spear increases the chance of catching an elusive fish, current mental health theory takes a three-pronged approach to treating depression.

Further honing this bio-psycho-social treatment approach, Stephen S. Ilardi, a clinical psychologist at the University of Kansas, pin-points chronic inflammation, mental rumination and social isolation, as the antecedents of depression and other modern diseases.

Ilardi’s research observed that these three preconditions seem to go hand-in-hand with the stressful, sedentary lifestyle and nutritionally deficient diet found in North America today.

He theorizes that this results from a miss-match between the chronic stresses of today’s lifestyle, and our physiology, which is still geared for the short duration fight-or-flight stress reactions, which our ancient ancestors needed to survive.

As a remedy, Ilardi offers six actions we can take to bring our lifestyles more in tune with the legacy of our hunter-gatherer physiology. This regime of wellness interventions is explained in his book, The Depression Cure: The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression without Drugs.

Foremost, for SAD, Ilardi’s research indicates that once a diagnosis of bi-polar disorder has been ruled out, bright light therapy, using a light box, can reverse the onset of SAD. According to Ilardi, this is because exposure to bright light, especially in the morning, helps maintain the production of mood regulating serotonin. Light exposure is also key to regulating our circadian rhythms for improved sleep.

According to Ilardi’s theory, the chronic inflammation, resulting from our runaway stress response, damages both the body and the brain in the long run. To combat this, he recommends altering the balance of essential fatty acids in our diet by adding more anti-inflammatory Omega 3’s, as found in fish oils, while reducing our intake of the inflammatory Omega 6 fatty acids, which prevail in processed food.

Other key biological interventions he recommends for SAD are: Supplementing vitamin D, increasing the amount of aerobic exercise we do, and boosting the quality and quantity of sleep we get.

On the psychological front, Ilardi draws on the talk-therapy of choice for treating depression; Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Avoiding rumination, or the cyclical re-hashing of negative thoughts which make us feel worse, is the key here. To do this, Ilardi recommends interrupting the cycle of rumination by engaging in activities that require focused attention, especially ones that involve social interaction, or exercise.

Finally, on the social front, Ilardi points out that humans evolved to be social beings because it granted the survival advantage of strength in numbers. Therefore, we are emotionally predisposed to find social isolation unpleasant, while actively seeking the safety of a group, or tribe.

However, as he points out, depressed people tend to isolate themselves, which only adds momentum to a downward slide in mood. He reminds us that today, quality social activity is still a requirement for our wellness, but the pace of modern life often interferes with pursuing it.

Videos of Stephen S. Ilardi’s lectures on depression can be found on YouTube. The one recorded at the University of Kansas elaborates best on the social aspect of depression, and on how living in a digitally connected culture can impact us negatively.

Ilardi points out that social media is no substitute for real social connection. Effectively, the digitally mediated social world of today has us wandering like lost nomads after mirage representations of the sort of tribal hearths where our ancestors found real community, long ago, in our cultural past.

In short, the key elements of Ilardi’s plan for beating SAD are easy to remember. These are: increase light exposure, exercise and good sleep, while reducing inflammation, rumination and social isolation.

However, getting the mood lifting results, which Ilardi reports in his books and lectures, requires a comprehensive understanding of factors like dietary supplement dosage and the exact duration and timing of light exposure, for example. Therefore, one should always seek the support of a healthcare professional, as a first step, before acting on wellness regimes found in biblio-therapy, or self-help reading.

Finally, this winter, as the daily arc of the sun over Canada takes on the trajectory of a half-hearted underhand pitch, instead of one like those exuberant celestial lobs which produce the long, warm summer days which we all pine for by February, try to remember; This too shall pass.

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