Mental chemistry: Getting outside helps battle seasonal affective disorder

February 2019 Posted in Your Health

By Melissa Wagoner

Gardening can be a great way to fight off seasonal blues, according to Heather Desmarteau-Fast, a horticulturist and the owner of Stamen and Pistil in Silverton. 

“The key is being outside and getting your lungs full of fresh air, exercise from moving and working the ground, raking or planting,” she listed. “There is now evidence that soil microbes have a similar effect to antidepressants and so while you are digging in the soil you might actually feel better mentally and physically.”

Exercise, as Desmarteau-Fast said, may indeed be a key component to fighting off seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that is experienced by millions of people each winter. 

“I would say that there’s seasonal blues, which are characterized by a mild to moderate decrease in energy – but you’re still able to function,” psychiatrist Audry Van Houweling, said. “And seasonal affective disorder, which is really on the order of major depression.”

Van Houweling, who primarily sees women and girls at her clinic, She Soars Psychiatry in Silverton, noted that almost 80 percent of women in their childbearing years suffer from some degree of SAD. Many go undiagnosed because the patterns of sadness, loss of motivation and sleep disturbance are often brushed aside.

“I didn’t know I had SAD for years,” Silvertonian and SAD sufferer Becky Ludden said. “It was just this general depression and feeling no energy and apathetic and no interest in going out. And then I read about SAD and it just clicked.”

With the majority of the workforce spending more time in offices with little to no ambient light, there is a big effect on public health occurring, according to Van Houweling, who says most of her patients are vitamin D deficient.

“Vitamin D is very important,” she noted. “Everybody should get their vitamin D level checked. It’s rare that I find someone with a healthy vitamin D level – and we should be testing kids, too. We’re spending more time inside, even in the summer months. And people who work graveyard shifts would really be susceptible to low vitamin D.”

Van Houweling recommends supplementation and extra time spent outside, but she said SAD lamps can be helpful, too.

“Make sure you get a quality one,” she cautioned, “10,000 Lux and generally 20 to 30 minutes a day.”

Many SAD sufferers also experience low serotonin levels – a neurotransmitter that contributes to feelings of well-being and happiness. 

“Serotonin is on a bit of a seasonal pattern,” Van Houweling explained. “And if you’re not exercising as much, not getting outside, drinking too much – it affects your serotonin.”

To boost levels, Van Houweling recommends regular exercise paired with a good diet. 

“Exercise in the morning,” she suggested. “And light exposure in the morning – even in a gym with good light exposure and windows – and minimize the sugar and alcohol. Alcohol is a depressant. Try to find a winter sport that gets you outside. Build up to being outdoors 10 minutes a day, then 15 minutes a day.”

Although those suffering from SAD won’t necessarily find a cure for the disorder by gardening on its own, Van Houweling thinks it may be helpful in mitigating symptoms. 

“Anything that’s getting you outside is helpful,” she noted. “Remind yourself of the comforts of the season and recognize there can be benefits to a little bit of a slow-down. Nature has its own rhythm, so recognizing that and being in touch with nature can help.”

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