The Fine Fettle: Seasonal Affective Disorder (and other sad states of mind)

By Ammi Midstokke
Reader Health Columnist

“Maybe I’ve got SAD,” I tell my mom as I whine about lethargy, lack of motivation, crying over pudding commercials, and a voracious appetite for cookies. “Or it could just be Monday.”

She aptly points out that Seasonal Affective Disorder doesn’t typically start until later in the year, although some people have opposite SAD and get depressed in the summer. These people must live in Backwards Land (or Phoenix, or they work as ski patrollers). Even if I did have SAD, I don’t know if I could ever admit it, because the acronym lends an even more pathetic note to the statement, “I get depressed when I can’t drink cocktails on the boat in my bikini.”

The fact that my paddle board racks are still on my car is a sign that I am reluctant to give up summer, but how do I determine if I have SAD or I just need a kick in the pants? Well, the Mayo Clinic lists a hosts of determining factors and symptoms to guide us. Symptoms of SAD include but are not limited to:

•fatigue

•depression

•depression that is related to seasons

•eating cookies more than you should

•sleeping in and then eat cookies for breakfast

•still not feeling better despite a life of cookie consumption

Recognizing how difficult it is to determine the difference between a diagnosis and a Monday, I set out to see if I could have an effect on the affective disorder.

I got up on time, went to yoga, and stopped eating cookies. I had a glass of water instead of wine at dinner. I wrote in my gratitude journal. I took a ridiculous amount of Vitamin D and an amino acid called L-Dopa. This is a direct precursor to the neurotransmitter dopamine, known for encouraging pleasure centers of the brain (not surprisingly, also blamed for addiction). For the sake of science, I took a dose just shy of lethal-for-lab-rats and waited for sensations of overwhelming joy. At this rate, I could survive winter in Alaska.

After a few days I thought maybe I felt better. I told a story about my grandmother’s death and did not sob. I went to the gym and did not hate it. But it wasn’t until Saturday that the epiphany came to me.

I had strapped on my snowshoes and headed out for a run in the mountains. All three of my dogs were frolicking in the snowflakes, bounding through the white powder. It was too deep to run, so I slowed to a comfortable hike as we wound our way around the hillside.

I had left my phone and watch at home. The sound of my snowshoes matched my breathing, and in the distance a bird chirped as though it too was denying the season. The Tamaracks, ill-prepared for the early winter, were shedding carpets of fiery orange onto the white ground. I slipped through a tunnel of trees, heavy and leaning from the weight of the snow. Narnia has nothing on North Idaho.

I made an observation: I was happy. In fact, I was nearly elated. It could have been a combination of the cocktail of happy-sauce I had been mixing all week, but I believe it was related to a small but profound acknowledgment: I never regretted going outside.

Throughout my entire life, whether depressed, sick, mourning, falling in love or broken-hearted, I never went for a walk, run, or hike and came home saying, “Well, that was lame.” Nope. Every time, without fail, I felt better after going outside.

Even more important to the recognition that the outdoors makes me happy is the reality that I am in control of my choice to go outside. It is no surprise that dozens of studies correlate increased production of happy hormones such as serotonin and endorphins for those who spend time outdoors, in particular those who exercise outdoors. Note: A great argument to not spend your winter solely in the gym.

So if you begin to think you’re suffering from SAD, try a litmus test of what we might think is common sense though we seem to need reminders: Take good care of your body, have self-compassion, and go outside. If you’re stilling feeling sad after that, see your doctor, but keep prescribing the above. In the very least, it will minimize the cookie damage.

Ammi Midstokke is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner in Sandpoint. She can be reached at [email protected]

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