For those of us that live in colder climates this time of year can get pretty depressing. The winter blues can make you feel unmotivated and tired, even if you’re doing all the right things like eating sensibly and exercising. Scientists call the winter blues seasonal depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). For some people SAD comes on gradually over the winter until one day they may realize they’re in a funk. For others it comes on quite abruptly, usually right after the winter holidays are over.
Symptoms & Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder
SAD symptoms include:
- Lack of energy or increased agitation (energy rollercoaster)
- Lack of interest in activities
- Difficulty waking up in the morning
- Difficulty with concentration and decision making
- Overeating and cravings for carbohydrates
- Decreased sex drive
SAD is a complex disorder with a lot of different potential causes. Scientists have linked SAD to imbalance in neurotransmitters in the brain including serotonin, melatonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. We know that imbalances in these chemicals have fairly predictable effects. Serotonin transfers feel good information and low levels can make you feel unmotivated and sad. Dopamine is linked to reward pathways in the brain and can make us overeat and feel lethargic.
What we don’t know is why this happens. Although science might be able to point to the mechanisms of action, a clear cause is difficult to identify. It’s likely that there is no single cause for SAD or seasonal depression but what’s clear is that SAD usually comes along with energy imbalance of some type. You can feel extra tired or extra agitated. You may also find yourself on an energy rollercoaster where you swiftly go from high strung and anxious to totally drained and lacking energy for anything. The energy rollercoaster can be made worse by spiking and plunging blood sugar levels if you’re giving in to those carb cravings.
Although the traditional treatment for SAD is light therapy, aromatherapy can also ease some of the symptoms by boosting mood and helping to stabilize energy levels through it’s effects on the nervous system.
Aromatherapy and Seasonal Affective Disorder
For some of us the winter blues can last well into March, as many northern locales experience winter weather well into the spring season. Essential oils are a proven way to combat winter blues and hold you over until spring arrives. A side benefit is that they make a really beautiful addition to your existing self care regimen, infusing luxury and sensuality into your routine.
Aromatherapy has been the subject of increasing research in recent years. Studies have shown that aromatherapy has a lot of tangible benefits including:
- A 10 minute treatment reduces anxiety by balancing the autonomic nervous system and enhancing the parasympathetic nervous system.
- Inhalation of essential oils reduces pain intensity with fewer side effects than pharmacological intervention.
- Aromatherapy induces relaxation.
These studies all point to the idea that aromatherapy relaxes the nervous system and can bring your energy back into balance.
Best Essential Oils for Seasonal Depression
Essential oils are the best way to explore aromatherapy. Home fragrances are some of the most toxic products on the market and should always be avoided in favor of natural scents.
The type of oil used is important. Different oils have different properties. The following are the essential oils most cited in studies on aromatherapy and mood disorders. Just remember that some studies have suggested that the mood boosting impact may be greater with oils that you enjoy smelling.
Lavender has a rich and soothing floral scent. Lavender essential oil alleviates anxiety comparable to lorazepam and has also been shown to improve sleep quality. It’s been proven to reduce levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. You can easily make a DIY pillow and furniture spray by adding a few drops to a glass mister filled with water. Less side effects and more beneficial than conventional home fragrances.
Bergamot is a member of the citrus family. It has a scent similar to orange and many know it as the flavour of Earl Grey. Bergamot oil alleviates symptoms of physical and psychological stress along with decreasing blood pressure and heart rate. It’s been proven to reduce levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Note that because bergamot oil is citrus based it can have photosensitizing effects if applied to the skin before sun exposure.
“Compared to placebo, rose oil caused significant decreases of breathing rate, blood oxygen saturation and systolic blood pressure, which indicate a decrease of autonomic arousal. At the emotional level, subjects in the rose oil group rated themselves as more calm, more relaxed…” (Boskabady et al 2011)
True rose oil is one of the most exquisite and unique fragrances in existence. It is also one of the most expensive essential oils to make because its produced through steam distillation. The best rose oil in the world comes from Bulgaria. This is usually designated “rose otto” after the town in Bulgaria where most cultivation takes place. Besides rose oil there are also rose absolutes, which are solvent extracted oils that may have traces of hexane and ethanol left over from the extraction process.
Be wary of inexpensive products (especially online) advertised as “pure” rose oil as they may be absolutes or adulterated to reduce costs.
It’s best not to burn oils whenever possible to prevent the release of carcinogenic compounds. The best way to make use of essential oils in aromatherapy is by either massaging them directly onto the skin or diffusing them into the air . Diffusing can be as simple as a few drops in a spray bottle with water or as luxurious as a cool mist diffuser like this beautiful Nexgadget BPA Free Wood Grain Essential Oil Diffuser.
If you’re already doing all the right things like maintaining a balanced diet and getting enough exercise, nurturing and relaxing rituals might be the extra boost you need to start feeling more like yourself. A lot of activities can be relaxing so don’t limit yourself to the ones proven by science. There may not be any studies on the physiological effects of hot baths but that doesn’t mean they won’t do you a world of good.
Featured image credit @earthandvineessentials