As the days are getting shorter and shorter, it’s not uncommon to experience a change in energy and maybe even your mood. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is essentially depression that has a season pattern. It’s estimated that 6% of the US population suffers from SAD in it’s most severe form and an additional 14% experience more mild mood changes (1). That’s 20% of our population! Symptoms can include fatigue, difficulty waking up in the morning, increased need for sleep, lack of motivation, cravings sweets, and a generally depressed mood.
It’s hypothesizes that SAD is caused by a decrease in light exposure during the winter months (2). Higher levels of daytime melatonin (remember, this is the sleep hormone) and lower levels of serotonin (the happy neurotransmitter) have been found in those who suffer from SAD (3). In addition to these findings, a decrease in sun exposure during the winter months results in less vitamin D production - and there's no denying the relationship between vitamin D and mood. Low vitamin D is continually found to be correlated with major depression symptoms (4).
Conventional treatment of SAD is antidepressant medications which can have nasty side effects and are often extremely difficult to stop taking once you start. I’ve had patients come to me who started antidepressants for SAD and then ended up taking the medication the whole year. Even though their mood is fine 6-8 months out of the year, the withdrawal from the medication was too difficult. This is unnecessary as there are many well documented natural treatments for SAD. Let's explore a few.
Light box: Light therapy is one of the most well studied therapies for SAD. Melatonin production is suppressed by light. Try sitting in front of a bright light box for 20-60 minutes daily. The light should be no less than 10,000 lux and filter out ultraviolet rays. This type of light provides around 20 times more light than typical indoor lighting.
A light alarm clock: If waking up in the morning when it’s dark is an issue for you, a light alarm can help. It starts emitting bright light with increasing intensity starting 30 minutes before the alarm goes off. This suppresses melatonin production and results in waking more refreshed.
Spend time outside in the sun every day: Even if it’s just for 10 minutes, take a walk on your lunch break or sit outside while you’re eating. Get your workout in outdoors, etc. If it’s cold, bundle up!
Vitamin D3: Vitamin D is thought to play a role in serotonin activity. Although this correlation isn’t completely understood, I’ve consistently seen improvement in my SAD patients with supplementation. Take 1,000-2,000 IU of Vitamin D3 per day with food to support a healthy mood. If you are deficient, you will need a higher dosage. I highly recommend you get your vitamin D levels checked with a simple blood test. It’s important to always take vitamin D with food specifically a meal that contains fat because it’s a fat soluble vitamin, meaning it requires fat to be absorbed.
St. John’s Wort: Also known as hypericum, St. John's Wort is an herbal antidepressant. Take 2-4 grams per day (or 2-4 capsules of this formula). It inhibits repute of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. As an added benefit, it’s also antiviral and can help prevent against colds and flus. In high doses, St. John’s wort can cause photosensitivity (sensitivity to light) so be careful if using it in conjunction with light therapy. St. John’s wort should not be taken with pharmaceutical antidepressants and may decrease effectiveness of some medications so talk to a qualified healthcare practitioner if you’re taking any medication.
5-HTP: For those who have tried St. John’s wort without success or should not take it due to the contraindications, I recommend trying 5-HTP which is the precursor to serotonin. Start with 100mg (1 capsules of this formula). If this isn’t helping after a few days, increase to 200mg per day. Take with food.
If you’ve tried the above without results or prefer more guidance, schedule a complimentary consultation with myself or contact a naturopathic doctor or other qualified alternative healthcare practitioner. There are several laboratory tests I’d recommend to uncover the root cause of your symptoms including: nutrient deficiencies, melatonin and other hormone levels, and neurotransmitter metabolites.
I hope you’re enjoying the first day of December. Get out and enjoy the sunshine, and do something that brings you joy today and everyday.
If you have any friends, family or loved ones who you are affected by SAD please forward them this post.