The darker days of winter can take a toll emotionally and mentally on many people. For some, feeling down and the longing for warm sunshine is constant and can be accompanied by symptoms like fatigue, weight gain and irritability. This feeling is referred to appropriately as SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), a type of depression that is common during winter months.
The cause of SAD isn’t absolutely clear. However, research indicates that lack of sunlight and the roles of two neurotransmitters, serotonin and melatonin, may have a part in the onset of this disorder.
Serotonin is known as the “feel good hormone” and helps to regulate our moods. Low levels of light are associated with lower levels of serotonin in our bodies. As serotonin levels lower, so does our mood. And, as low light levels are linked to decreased serotonin levels, they also cause an increase in melatonin, the hormone that decreases our energy and helps us sleep at night. People with SAD may produce more melatonin at night and into the early morning, leaving them feeling lethargic during the day.
Fortunately, there are many natural treatment options that exist for SAD. Conventional antidepressants can be effective for some people, but there can be numerous side effects that should be considered carefully with your primary care physician.
Light therapy has been shown to be just as effective as antidepressants for managing symptoms of SAD. There are two forms of light therapy, bright light therapy and dawn stimulation. Researchers believe that light therapy works because it resets our internal clocks.
• Bright light therapy involves exposing a person to extremely bright lights, normally measuring 10000 lux (the measurement for illumination) for 30 minutes or more per day. A sunny day is about 50000 lux. Bright light exposure has also been show shown to increase serotonin levels and decrease melatonin. If using this type of therapy, you may want to avoid using it in the evening.
• Dawn stimulation uses longer exposure times of up to 90 minutes, with gradually brightening lights to imitate natural sunrise. This therapy takes places while the person is still sleeping.
Diet and Exercise
A balanced diet rich in protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats helps stabilize blood sugar levels and therefore can be an important factor in managing SAD symptoms. Exercise can help relieve stress that may build up as a result of SAD, while reducing symptoms of fatigue. Studies have consistently shown that exercise may significantly improve the moods of those suffering from various forms of depression, including SAD.
Before taking supplements, talk to your healthcare practitioner to ensure the safest and most effective product(s) for your situation.
• St. John’s Wort is considered a natural antidepressant and may help ease the symptoms of SAD. It works by affecting the brain’s uptake of serotonin as well as two other mood controlling chemicals, dopamine and norepinephrine.
• Rhodiola rosea is an adaptogen used to help with stress. It has been shown to be an effective treatment for mild to moderate depression.
• Omega-3 fatty acids may affect the way in which serotonin works within the body.
• Vitamin D is the sunshine vitamin and evidence shows that there is a link between low levels of vitamin D and increased depressive symptoms. The active hormone in vitamin D, calcitriol, affects several mood controlling factors in the body.
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