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Groundhog Day has come and gone, and if you live in the northern parts of the U.S., this is the time of year you may be getting a little weary of cold, snow, and gray skies. Personally I’m all for snow on Christmas, but outside of that I take my sunshine and vitamin D seriously!
And it’s not just to be warm, either!
I’ve long been convinced that exposure to the right kinds of light at the right times is crucial for sleep patterns, energy, and general health. It’s so important, in fact, that lack of light can lead to a condition commonly known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD for short.
If the gray winter days are stretching on too long and you’re wondering if the way you feel could be more than a mood swing, here’s what the research has to say about SAD, as well as some ways to prevent or treat it naturally.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal Affective Disorder is, as the name suggests, reoccurring periods of depression that seem to coincide with seasonal weather patterns. The most common form begins in fall and winter but typically lifts in the spring. (Surprisingly, it is also possible to experience depression seasonally in the summer, but this more rare.) Sometimes periods of mania or hyperactivity cycle with these episodes at certain times of the year.
Whether or not SAD is a real phenomenon has long been debated since the term was first coined in the 1980s, but more recent research is showing a valid connection between lack of light and seasonal depression. Experts don’t completely understand all the mechanisms at play but they do know that lack of light, vitamin D, and other factors that vary by season may contribute to SAD.
January and February are actually the worst months for SAD, and no wonder … many people in certain parts of the U.S. go to the work in the dark, stay indoors all day, and drive home in the dark again!
So why does light matter for our mental and physical health? Here’s why!
What Causes SAD?
There are a number of reasons (aside from just low levels of light exposure) that can trigger Seasonal Affective Disorder. The main reasons are:
- lack of light (and the vitamin D deficiency that results)
- genetics (those with family members who suffer from SAD or depression are more likely to have it too)
- gender (women are 4 times as likely to suffer from SAD than men)
- stress (though it’s not clear if stress causes SAD or if inability to cope with stress arises from it, or both)
Even simply tending toward negative thought patterns, combined with the other above factors, make one more likely to suffer seasonal depression.
We don’t have much control over our genetics or gender, but we can do something about a) light exposure, b) our vitamin D levels, and c) our level of stress and our mental thought patterns (more on that below).
Without enough light penetrating our retina (especially blue light), the body’s built-in systems that manage wakefulness and sleep start to shift. Studies show that people with seasonal depression are especially sensitive to seasonal cues and tend to produce more melatonin and sleep longer at night than those without SAD. This may lead to sluggish transmission in brain serotonin systems, insensitivity of the eyes to environmental light, and abnormal circadian (daily) rhythms — a cycle that doesn’t resolve until the body senses the return of longer/lighter days.
Natural Remedies for SAD (That Really Work)
These natural remedies are safe, effective, and can be used in combination without side effects.
Light therapy is often the first choice for SAD treatment. If the biggest trigger for SAD is decreased light, then increasing exposure to light should help. Light therapy is one way to do this. Light therapy works by stimulating cells in the retina that connect to the hypothalamus (a part of the brain that helps control circadian rhythms).
I always recommend getting outdoors but if you aren’t one to enjoy time out in the snow, try sitting in front of a light box for 30 minutes a day (first thing in the morning is best). Getting outside, even when it’s cold, is another good way to get more natural light. Fresh air and light both help rejuvenate the mind, body, and spirit.
Another great choice is a dawn-simulating alarm clock. This kind of clock can help get sleepyheads out of bed when it’s still dark out in the morning. It works by gradually getting brighter 15-30 minutes before wake time. The light triggers the brain to wake up naturally (which can make the day go so much better!). The additional light may be enough to reverse mild SAD.
Tryptophan and 5-HTP
Light therapy is usually the first choice for treating SAD, but when light alone doesn’t work, adding tryptophan may help. Research shows tryptophan depletion makes light therapy less helpful.
Tryptophan and 5-HTP are both necessary amino acids. Tryptophan is the precursor of 5-HTP which is a precursor to serotonin. So both tryptophan and 5-HTP are important in supporting the body’s ability to synthesis serotonin.
If SAD is caused by poor serotonin transmission or lack of serotonin, adding these precursor amino acids may help boost the body’s ability to regulate serotonin naturally.
Both can be found in supplements but food is the first step. Foods high in tryptophan (which can be converted to 5-HTP) are:
- pastured eggs
- wild-caught fish
- pastured poultry
- raw dairy
- sesame seeds, cashews, walnuts
There is a lot of research connecting B12 deficiency with depression. Numerous studies have found that those with depression also have B12 deficiency as well as people with B12 deficiencies being much more likely to be depressed.
Though Seasonal Affective Disorder is a bit different than standard depression B12 may still play a part. For instance, the lower levels of light may just push someone “over the edge” into depression when their B12 deficiency had them teetering on that same edge.
The first step to getting B12 levels up is making sure there is enough in the diet. The top 5 foods most concentrated in B12 are:
- shellfish (clams, mussels, crab)
- organ meats (like beef liver)
- wild-caught fish (such as salmon, trout, mackerel)
- grass-fed beef
- pastured eggs
For severe deficiencies, a supplement may be necessary. B12 is typically best absorbed in combination with other B-vitamins (like in a B complex supplement). Desiccated liver pills are also a good choice.
Vitamin D is important for a healthy immune system and to protect bones but it may also help those with depression. Though experts don’t know for sure how vitamin D affects mood, they do know that there is a relationship between low levels of vitamin D in the blood and depression. According to the Vitamin D Council, it may be that vitamin D affects the amount of serotonin available.
Vitamin D is most readily acquired from the sun. If possible, put these tips into action and start spending 20-30 minutes outside daily. If it’s too cold to go outside, consider getting vitamin D levels tested and taking a supplement. Here’s what I take.
Balanced Blood Sugar
For those with SAD, it’s important to keep blood sugar balanced. Cravings for carbs and sugar is one of the symptoms of SAD and it makes sense biologically.
As mentioned earlier, tryptophan is needed to synthesize serotonin. Tryptophan is the least abundant amino acid and has to compete with other amino acids to get to the brain. However, tryptophan acts differently than other amino acids and actually is the “last man standing” when other proteins (amino acids) are pulled away because of an insulin spike.
In other words, carbs make it easier for the brain to get the tryptophan it needs to produce serotonin. Except, when too many carbs are consumed for a long period of time the serotonin machinery can be overtaxed and stop working as well.
Eating less sugar and carbs is a good start to balancing blood sugar but there are other tips that can help too:
- eat fat (healthy fats like olive oil, avocados, and even saturated fat from grass-fed meat can help regulate the absorption of sugar in the bloodstream)
- consume enough protein (also helps slow sugar absorption)
- increase calories (not eating enough can cause hunger and sugar cravings)
Counseling or Therapy
Studies show cognitive and behavioral therapy can help reshape negative patterns of thought contributing to SAD, and are helpful also for SAD’s less intense cousin “winter blues” (technically called subsyndromal-SAD). If the symptoms of SAD are overwhelming, a counselor or therapist is a great idea to get some perspective and find new ways to cope.
I also like these ideas for learning more positive self-talk and self-compassion. While I don’t mean to suggest that you can talk yourself out of depression, research shows that reinforcing positive, grateful thoughts and feelings lowers inflammation and other physical markers that may be contributing toward depressive feelings.
Enjoy Winter More
Northern Europeans have been dealing with SAD in a slightly different way than Americans. One researcher found fewer occurences of SAD in places like Norway where the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon in the darkest part of the year.
One key difference may be that in that part of the world, they celebrate winter instead of endure it. They spend the winter months doing things they can’t do at other times of the year, like snow sports or cuddling by the fire. You may have heard of hygge (linking to a video that helped me figure out how to actually pronounce it!) and the whole movement devoted to cultivating a cozy, pleasant indoor feeling this time of year.
So make some herbal tea, throw on a sweater and some fuzzy slippers, and cozy up! If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, right?
Go Somewhere Warm and Bright
There’s a reason why we have spring break … if all else fails and the opportunity arises, traveling to a warmer, brighter location may be enough to boost the spirits and get through until spring!
Why Not Take Depression Medication?
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are often prescribed for depression and other mental health disorders. When they were discovered in the 1990s lots of people began taking them. This group of drugs include brand names like Zoloft, Paxil, and Prozac.
But SSRIs may not work very well. A study reported in Pyschology Today found that SSRIs are no more effective than a placebo pill. Research shows that SSRIs may be helpful in severe depression but with more mild depression they are a “waste of money.” Side effects of SSRIs range from diarrhea and dizziness to sexual problems and insomnia.
Bottom line: For mild to moderate SAD it may be a good idea to try natural treatments before taking a medication (but talk with your doctor about your specific needs).
Understanding SAD in Kids
Kids can be affected by SAD too. Unfortunately, children with SAD are often misdiagnosed with ADHD. The symptoms of SAD can mimic ADHD, except that children with SAD are usually more withdrawn (not hyper).
Symptoms of SAD are similar for children and adults:
- changes in mood – sadness or depression that last for 2 weeks or longer (being more sensitive than usual)
- trouble coping with stress
- defiance (a sign that they aren’t feeling “good”)
- lack of enjoyment in activities and hobbies
- low energy despite more sleep
- carb cravings
- difficulty concentrating and lack of motivation at school
- spending less time with friends
What’s tricky to figure out with kids is whether it’s the activities of the fall and winter that trigger symptoms, rather than the season. In other words, school starting, sports beginning, and midterms looming may all contribute to similar symptoms. It’s always a good idea to talk with a doctor if you’re concerned about your child’s behavior, but if SAD is the diagnosis, try the remedies above.
Summer Seasonal Affective Disorder (What?!)
Though no one knows why summer SAD occurs for sure, it’s thought that the longer daylight hours or heat may play a part. Summer SAD symptoms are the opposite of winter SAD:
- agitated instead of lethargic
- loss of appetite
- losing weight
It’s important to note that those with summer SAD are at higher risk for suicidal thoughts, so they should contact their doctor to discuss options.
Luckily, it’s easier to treat summer SAD. Staying inside or covering the eyes to block light and spending time in air conditioning is fairly easy (a midday movie perhaps?).
Depression is a complicated topic with multiple possible causes and it’s important to discuss concerns regarding depression with a doctor. However, natural treatments for seasonal depression are safe and effective without the side effects of some antidepressant drugs, so they are worth a try!
Here’s to spring just around the corner!
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Mariza Snyder, a functional practitioner. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Have you ever experienced seasonal depression? What helped? Please share!