Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Seasonal Affective Disorder by Grace Calihan, ND

Fall is officially here, with shorter days and longer nights.  For some, this means some pretty significant mood changes.  Seasonal Affective Disorder affects an estimated 6-10% of the population.  Women are 4 times more likely to be affected, and it’s a condition that is most often seen in young adults.  Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is more than just the winter blues.  Symptoms of depression, such as low motivation, sleepiness, sadness, carbohydrate cravings, decreased sex drive, and avoidance of others, are triggered by the lack of sunlight that comes with the season change.

The mechanism explaining why SAD can happen is unclear.  The lack of sunlight seems to disrupt the body’s ability to self regulate sleep and mood.  The extra dark may affect levels of serotonin (our “feel good” neurotransmitter) and melatonin (the neurotransmitter that regulates sleep).  The regulation of cortisol by the adrenal glands may also play a role.

SAD can also mimic other conditions.  If you are concerned that you might have SAD, make sure your naturopathic doctor checks for an underactive thyroid, hypoglycemia, and chronic viral infections before you are diagnosed with SAD.

The good news about SAD is that there are many naturopathic approaches to turning it around.  First and foremost, we need to start tricking the body into thinking that there is more sunlight than the forecast indicates.  Plenty of research suggests that waking up to 30 minutes of exposure to 2,500-10,000 lux can decrease and even eliminate symptoms of SAD.  This is done at home with a light box, set at eye level first thing in the morning.  There is no need to look directly into the light, simply placing the lamp or light box nearby as you go through your morning routine is sufficient.  There are many light boxes on the market, I like the LightPhoria Energy Light, by Sphere because it’s so affordable.

There are also plenty of nutritional and herbal interventions.  Increasing antioxidants by eating the colorful vegetables of fall harvest can support the adrenal glands and increase energy.  High quality protein sources provide amino acids, which are the building blocks of neurotransmitters (like serotonin and melatonin).  Additionally, herbal adrenal support can be very helpful.  Using herbs like Rhodiola rosea or Astragalus membranaceus daily can regulate cortisol, the stress hormone that alerts the body to daytime.  If you notice that you are having trouble sleeping at night during the season changes, you can replenish your melatonin by taking 1-2mg at bedtime.  There are also dietary and herbal interventions to support serotonin.  L-tryptophan is a specific amino acid that serves as a building block for serotonin.  It can be used supplementally to help balance those levels.  Another approach is with St. John’s Wort, or Hypericum perforatum.  However, addressing neurotransmitters like serotonin should be done under the direct care of your naturopathic doctor.

In fact, I would encourage everyone to check in with his or her naturopath about mood and brain health.  There are resources that can help assess levels of these essential brain chemicals and many naturopathic approaches to treating any imbalances even if you are on an antidepressant or anti anxiety medication.  No one should be walking into winter feeling low.  Looking forward to working with you this fall!