The winter months can be tough. The daylight that was once so plentiful seems fleeting at best. The temperature drops steeply. The world feels cold and gloomy.
All of us are in some way affected by this seasonal change. But some are more disturbed by it than others. Sufferers of seasonal affective disorder (known by the all-too-apt acronym SAD) used to be dismissed as simply having the ?winter blues.? In recent years, SAD has been recognized as a serious, life-altering condition. Dr. Norman Rosenthal, who has written books on SAD, estimates that almost 20 percent of all Americans suffer from some form of SAD, whether they realize it or not.
What causes SAD? It?s generally believed to be the result of a lack of exposure to daylight, which causes a chemical imbalance in the hypothalamus, the region of the brain that contains several types of neurons responsible for secreting different hormones, such as dopamine.
The regions of the world that are most affected by SAD are those in high latitudes (50 degrees north or south). And SAD can also strike hard in areas such as the Pacific Northwest where mild-but-overcast winters can exacerbate the condition. Predictably, the worst months for the afflicted come in the dead of winter.
There are many telltale symptoms of SAD, including lethargy, overeating, depression, sleep problems, anxiety, loss of libido and mood swings. The disorder also contributes to a weakened immune system. These symptoms disappear almost entirely with the onset of spring or early summer.
Studies have shown that the most effective treatment of SAD is what is known as light treatment, which can include the use of a bright light box for 30 to 60 minutes daily. But the uses of floral essences or St. John?s wort (Hypericum perforatum) have been found to be useful.
Flower power Discovered and developed by the English physician Edward Bach in the 1930s, flower remedies have become increasingly popular for treating emotional imbalances. In the United Kingdom and Europe, the 38 flower tinctures are sold in mainstream outlets alongside aspirin and cold medicine.
In a study published in the November/December 2003 issue of the peer-reviewed journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, Bach flower remedies were found to aid enormously in the treatment of chronic depression within the context of psychotherapy. These benefits can be extended to those suffering from SAD, a condition that has similar symptoms to chronic depression.
?The idea is to change a person?s outlook, to put it back into balance,? says Nancy Buono, the international education program director for Bach Flower Remedies.
While some doctors may prescribe antidepressants to SAD sufferers, those drugs can come with side effects. Such concerns are not necessary when using flower essences, according to Buono. The essences won?t interact chemically with other herbs, supplements or other types of treatments.
Each essence has a different effect on a SAD sufferer?s symptoms. ?For the tendency to sleep too much and not pay attention to life or diet, clematis brings back a balance,? Buono says. ?Loss of energy, lethargy, is also one of the big symptoms of SAD. Hornbeam can really help with that. It will make you feel more grounded, more fully awake and present. Another big one is anxiety—a decreased ability to deal with stress, frustration and a loss of patience. Rescue Remedy is designed to help in those situations. It contains a mixture of five different essences and helps you to feel less impatient and frustrated. Loss of interest is another [symptom]. Wild rose is the best essence for that. That?s for people who feel like they?re watching their own lives go by, people who are feeling apathetic and disconnected.?
Bach has set up a Web site, www.bachquiz.com, which can point consumers in the right direction. By answering a handful of questions about symptoms, the site offers suggestions on which essences will prove most useful.
Incorporating the essences into a daily routine is easy, Buono says. ?You can take [the essences] directly, two drops neat, four times a day. Or if you don?t like the taste of alcohol (the essences are preserved in brandy) you can put the two drops into any beverage,? she says. ?Or they can be applied topically by rubbing them into a pulse point.?
St. John?s wort, which consists of the dried, aboveground parts of H. perforatum L. gathered during flowering season, has been used in herbal medicine for centuries. In the Middle Ages, it was believed to have magical healing properties. Recent research has proven that these beliefs were not so far off. In numerous studies, St. John?s wort has been effective in reducing symptoms in those with mild to moderate but not severe depression. When compared with antidepressants, St. John?s wort is equally effective and has fewer side effects. Used in conjunction with light therapy, the herb has shown antidepressant effects on SAD sufferers. A study published in 1999 in Current Medical Research and Opinion, using volunteers from the U.K. SAD Association, showed significant reduction in anxiety, loss of libido and insomnia when using St. John?s wort and light therapy over an eight-week period. Rosenthal, of Capital Clinical Research Associates, is considered one of the foremost experts on SAD and St. John?s wort. ?There is every reason to believe that St. John?s wort would be helpful for people with SAD,? he says. ?There is a lot of evidence out there showing it can help with depression.?
Rosenthal does have one reservation about the herb?s use, however. ?Using St. John?s with light therapy is potentially risky. St. John?s is a photosensitizer and can sensitize tissues to light. So using it and light therapy can potentially damage the eyes. As a result, I don?t recommend it to my patients. I tell them to use one or the other.?
Jerry Cott, former chief of psychopharmocology at the National Institute of Mental Health, also recommends St. John?s with a few reservations. ?There?s no reason to think that St. John?s wouldn?t be effective in dealing with SAD,? he says. ?As an antidepressant, it should be useful. But it would be nice to have some more data dealing with SAD and St. John?s specifically.?
Ultimately, the clinical data gathered is suggestive but not conclusive in regard to the herb?s potency when dealing with SAD. But used in conjunction with other therapies, the herb is worth trying. St. John?s is very easy to incorporate into one?s lifestyle, and most users take it with meals. Side effects are generally minimal, but consumers ought to speak with a doctor if they have a pre-existing medical condition or have already been prescribed an antidepressant.
Tyler Wilcox is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 12/p. 26, 28