Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – How to Cope With the “Winter Blues”

winter.With the shortening of the days during the winter season, especially in Northern climates, a disorder called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) becomes more prevalent. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a form of clinical depression otherwise called “winter blues.” It generally peaks during the months of January and February. Typical symptoms can include difficulty waking, decreased energy, carbohydrate cravings, increased appetite, weight gain, difficulty concentrating, decreased libido, withdrawal from friends and family, anxiety and irritability.

According to Dr. Norman Rosenthal, author of the book Winter Blues, an estimated 25 million Americans are affected by this disorder, but not all are affected enough to require medical attention. Dr. Rosenthal was one of the first physicians to bring this to the public eye over 20 years ago.

It has been noted that SAD is four times more prevalent in females than males. One explanation currently linked to the cause of SAD is that the lack of light exposure, particularly sunlight, affects the pineal gland in the brain. The body’s internal clock is regulated by the pineal gland. This gland is controlled by either the presence or absence of external light, and it functions to synchronize and coordinate the body processes. Melatonin being the chief hormone of the pineal is produced only at night. Production stops when the eyes are exposed to sunlight. Melatonin is thought to be the primary regulator of the immune system. It has sedative properties and helps to reduce anxiety and panic disorders. However, when the days are shorter and cloudy, melatonin levels can stay higher than normal. Those affected with SAD have elevated melatonin levels which can lead to depression, irritability and lethargy. Another neurotransmitter called serotonin plays a part in this balance with melatonin. Serotonin helps to keep us calm, reduces stress and anxiety, and aids sleep. During the winter months the body produces less serotonin. One deficiency symptom of this is carbohydrate or sugar cravings. People with SAD tend to overeat and crave these “comfort foods.”

Now that we understand this disorder better, let’s look at some ways to treat it naturally. This can include all or some of the following: Nutritional, herbal, exercise, meditation and light therapy. Nutritional therapies would include treatment protocol similar to treating mild to moderate depression.  This would include:

  • B- Complex vitamins high in folic acid, B6 and B12
  • Vitamin C
  • Tyrosine and or phenylalanine
  • SAM (S-Adenosyl-Methionine)
  • 5 HTP (5 Hydroxyl-Tryptophane)
  • EFA’s (flax, borage, evening primrose)
  • Melatonin

Herbally, the use of St. John’s Wort has shown to be effective. In recent studies the standardized extract was used at a dosage of 300 mg, 3 times a day; and it takes at least two weeks for anyone to notice its effectiveness. Many of you are aware of St. John’s Wort due to much media coverage. If you try it, remember to get a product that has been used in clinical trials. Not all products on the market are the same quality. I find it interesting that the active constituents that account for its clinical status in mild depression have changed over the last few years. Just last year, it was noted at a two-day conference on St. John’s Wort that hypericin is not the active component but a constituent called hyperforin. I prefer to use a product that has the whole herb with it having had the constituents measured.

A very vital part to SAD is the use of light therapy. There have been dozens of studies over the past decade that found using light therapy relieves most of the symptoms of winter blues. Due to the lack of sunlight or natural light during the winter months, it is important to purchase full spectrum lights. They are available in florescent, incandescent, halogen, floodlight, three-way and plant bulbs. Vitalite and Chromalux are the brands with which I am most familiar. I use them at home and in the workplace due to lack of windows. The original light therapy work was developed by using a light box. Early boxes would produce light in the range of 2,500 lux. Most room lighting falls within 1,000 lux. By comparison, full sun without clouds can produce up to 100,000 lux. So you can see the range of light needed. Most light boxes today put out 10,000 lux. For therapeutic effects a person would sit in front of the light box over a period of hours each day. There is some controversy as to the best times of the day for this to take place.

Dr. John Ott in considered the pioneer in the field of full spectrum, color correcting task lighting. By accident he discovered the biological benefits of lighting while working on a project for Walt Disney back in the early sixties. His company, Ott Bio Lighting Systems, manufacturers a patented system of lighting now the subject of research.

If you know or suspect that you are experiencing SAD, there is a lot of information available to you. The following books might be helpful:

Winter Blues by Dr. Norman Rosenthal
Natural Alternatives to Prozac by Michael Murray, ND,
Dealing With Depression Naturally by Syd Baumel.

Remember to go outside during the winter, especially on sunny days, and take a walk in the park.

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