The months between the Winter Solstice and Vernal Equinox may seem longer and drearier with each passing day. In mid-winter, millions of people experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.), a moody, low-lying funk which was isolated as a clinical disorder in the 1980s. And women may be up to four times more susceptible to S.A.D. than men during winter months.

But here’s the good news: we’re about to “spring ahead” March 9, meaning that the days will feel much longer and our hours of sunlight will increase through mid-June. And new scientific discoveries in the chemistry of the brain are revealing ways in which we can re-boot our brain-chemistry in non-pharmacological ways to feel happier, year-round.

Every aspect of human experience—the effects of light and darkness, the way we respond to having our skin touched, our response to inhaling essential oils made from organic plants—triggers complex chemical cascades and interactions within the human brain. Study of the brain is still in its infancy, but emerging science offers hope in addressing depression, anxiety and other mood-related conditions which often correlate with the darkness and chill of the winter months.

One of the key “feel-good” brain-chemicals needed for a sense of well-being is serotonin. Lack of sunlight causes the brain to reduce serotonin production, resulting in seasonal symptoms including:

  • Drop in energy-level
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Tendency to oversleep
  • Fatigue
  • Weight gain
  • Carb-cravings
  • Loss of libido
  • Weakened immune system
  • Depression

Studies examining the specific interaction of essential oils with our brain-chemistry relative to these symptoms and others—what we call “the sweatpants syndrome”—are currently being conducted worldwide.  As background, essential oils have been treasured for millennia as natural mood-management go-to’s, used to balance the subtlest nuances of body and mind.

The use of aromatics may be relevant when considered in the context that some research indicates that people experiencing S.A.D. may have a heightened sense of smell. For instance, Teodor Postolache, MD, a psychiatrist at the University of Maryland Medical Center, conducted a 1999 study which demonstrated that depressed patients with S.A.D. could detect extremely low levels of odor (Postolache T.T., Doty R.L., Wehr T.A., Jimma L.A., Han L., Turner E.H., Mathews J.R., Neumeister A., No C., Kroger H., Bruder G.E., Rosenthal N.E. (1999). Monorhinal odor identification and depression scores in patients with seasonal affective disorder. . J Affect Disord 56(1):27-35.).

 

Bergamot, like all Citrus Essential Oils, is considered an uplifting and refreshing tonic by aromatherapy masters such as certified practitioner and teacher Virginia Evangelou, contributing writer for Complementary and Alternative Medicine Information for Teens and other holistic health journals. For centuries, these Essential Oils have been used to ease irritability and anxiety, and help us cheer up:

 

Specifically, Sage is often used to balance extreme emotions and keep the highs and lows in perspective. Not surprisingly, similar benefits are reported as the result of aerobic exercise, which releases endorphins in the brain.

Dr. Paul J. Zak, the neuroeconomist named one of the world’s “10 Sexiest Geeks” by WIRED magazine, conducts research which examines the release of oxytocin in the brain. He has shown that oxytocin not only is responsible for happiness, but also ethical behavior morality. He is the author of the groundbreaking 2012 book and TED Talk, The Moral Molecule, which explores the role of oxytocin in human relationships on the personal, professional and global scale.

“Hugs release oxytocin,” says Dr. Zak of this brain-chemical which is unique to mammals. Dr. Zak recommends a minimum of eight hugs a day to maintain essential well-being on both the physiological and psychological levels. “Isolation and lack of contact with fellow humans are significant contributing factors to depression and anxiety,” he comments. “Winter weather may contribute to isolation, so it’s essential to our optimal functioning to interact and bond with kinship groups—and it’s important to touch and be touched in those settings.”

The brains of women release more oxytocin than the brains of men, according to Dr. Zak. And, although we love our pets, contrary to common opinion, hugging our cats and dogs doesn’t always release oxytocin in our brains.

However, a man walking a dog may become a natural magnet for conversation, and perhaps even hugs—good news, since men in particular need more accepted social opportunities to release oxytocin for a greater sense of well-being.