Managing the Winter Blues with Acupuncture

by Erin Kumpf, L.Ac

Ahh…winter. For the blessed individuals who relish in the sub-arctic cold and continue to frolic in the snow come mid February, another few weeks of winter is no big deal. For many, however, this time of year often means increased lethargy, depression, irritability, bouts of crying, poor sleep or increased need for sleep, diminished libido, difficulty in concentrating, body aches, increased cravings for carbohydrates, and associated weight gain as well as a deep feeling of loneliness.

This grouping of symptoms form a condition referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Although SAD can occur in the summer, symptoms more typically begin in the fall and last until spring, with the worst symptoms occurring during the darkest months. The further away people live from the equator, the more people are plagued with this disorder.

Although the mechanism behind SAD is not fully understood, researchers have found that exposure to bright light affects the chemical makeup of the brain. With decreased exposure to sunlight, melatonin levels are skewed (melatonin’s primary function is associated with circadium rhythm and regulating our day-night cycles.) Researchers also believe that low levels of Vitamin D are associated with higher occurrence of SAD. Contributing factors may include genetics, hormones, stress and anxiety.1

According to Flaws and Lake, Seasonal Affect Disorder is defined as:

a variant of bipolar disorder characterized by cyclic manic, depressive, or mixed mood states that are somehow triggered by external cues related to the changing seasons, including principally, increased or decreased day length. Individuals with SAD typically become depressed during the autumn months and become manic during springtime.2

Some patients are also afflicted with other mental issues as well such as substance abuse or anxiety disorders for which they should seek professional help. However, many of us experience mild versions of these symptoms and can benefit from incorporating some lifestyle changes and practices.

Two of the most commons treatments for SAD include phototherapy (exposure to bright light for approximately 30 minutes a day) and antidepressants (usually some form of selective reuptake inhibitors such as Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil and Celexa)3. While these treatments can control depression and increase quality of life, they often have negative side effects such as anxiety, palpitations, high blood pressure and insomnia and do not address the underlying causes associated with the disorder. What many people do not know is that acupuncture, exercise and diet can be widely effective in managing symptoms of SAD and have minimal side effects.

In Chinese theory, the oscillation between seasons is represented by a waxing and waning of yin and yang energies. Winter is the height of the yin cycle and the water element, and the season is associated with passivity, coldness, contraction, descending, femininity, reflection and storage. The opposite of yin is yang, which is associated with masculinity, brightness, warmth and activity. People that are constitutionally more yin may be more predisposed to feeling the affects of the winter more than others. There are ways to mitigate these effects, however!

Acupuncture, which has minimal side effects, has been shown to treat forms of depression by modulating the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems and increasing opioid peptides in the body, which are associated with the feelings of pleasure and relief from anxiety. One study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders noted “that acupuncture treatments have been shown to increase nocturnal melatonin secretion and reduce insomnia and anxiety.”4 Another study concluded that acupuncture alleviates depression by normalizing gene expression. By breaking the cycle of biochemical changes that often cause and perpetuate depression, acupuncture can upregulate some genes and downregulate others to appropriate levels, resulting in relief from feelings of depression.5

In Chinese Medicine the winter months are associated with the kidneys, which are the basis for all our vital energy (and the source of warmth and fire for all our other organs!). Thus, their health is crucial to the health of all the inner workings of our bodies. In winter, we often crave quick sources of energy (usually high-calorie or high-fat foods), which we end up storing if not used immediately for energy. As a result, proper food intake is so important in modulating our moods. High-sugar foods often end up spiking our blood sugar level which is followed by a quick plummet of blood sugar levels, spawning even more cravings for more sugar.

Eating foods that are warm and nourishing and avoiding cold, raw, and high-sugar foods will help modulate your digestion and mood. Foods that are good to include now are soups, hearty stews, congee, warm drinks, black beans, black sesame seeds, bone marrow, cabbages, chard, ginger, kale, miso, mulberry, turnips, walnuts, eggs, Chinese yam, dates, black fungus, and leeks. Avoid eating too much or too little.

Ensuring you are properly dressed when going outside is important as well, such as wearing a hat, hood or scarf. Get adequate rest; if you can only get limited hours of rest during the night, take some breaks throughout the day to recharge. Exercises to help open up constricted joints and tendons from the cold such as yoga (think restorative!) is perfect. Getting outdoors and exposing yourself to sunlight with activities like skiing and snow showing are also great winter activities. Staying healthy by signing up for an acupuncture treatment, which can help boost immunity, is also recommended.

And remember…to everything, there is a season and what is now will not always be, so take comfort that if you are feeling low, there is light at the end of the tunnel; spring is just around the corner!

1Seasonal Affective Disorder. (2014, January 1). Retrieved from www.psychology.org.

2Flaws, B., & Lake, MD, J. (2010). Bipolar Affective Disorder (BAD). In Chinese Medical Psychiatry (6th ed., p. 354). Boulder: Blue Poppy Press.

3Seasonal Affective Disorder. (2015). Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/mental-health/tc/seasonal-affective-disorder-sad-topic-overview.

4Acupuncture Antidepressant Pairing Eases Depression. (February, 2, 2015). Retrieved from http://www.healthcmi.com/Acupuncture-Continuing-Education-News/1424-acupuncture-antidepressant-additive-depression-relief.

5Update: Acupuncture Reduces Depression and Insomnia. (April, 6, 2014). Retrieved from http://www.healthcmi.com/Acupuncture-Continuing-Education-News/1289-update-acupuncture-reduces-depression-and-insomnia?highlight=WyJkZXByZXNzaW9uIl0=