Seasonal Affective Disorder

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By Dr Maria Zangara

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a common disorder that occurs in the winter months, when days are shorter, darker and grayer. The lack of sunlight is thought to contribute to symptoms of SAD. People suffering from SAD undergo extreme changes in mood that fluctuate with the seasons, as if they were split between a ‘summer person’ and a ‘winter person.’ For most who suffer, the syndrome begins gradually in late August or early September, and corresponds with the diminishing light at this time of year. Discomfort continues through March or early April, when the symptoms begin to dissipate as the hours of daylight lengthen.

It is estimated that SAD affects 11 million people in the U.S. each year and that an additional 25 million suffer a milder form of the disorder called the ‘Winter Blues’. Four times as many women suffer from SAD as men, and the disorder tends to run in families. We are not sure why women are more vulnerable, but it may be that women’s systems are more sensitive to hormonal shifts. Geographical location itself plays the largest role in susceptibility to SAD; the nearer one lives to one of the earth’s poles, either the South Pole or the North Pole, the greater the incidence. People in Canada or the northern U.S. are eight times more likely to fall victim to SAD than those living in sunny, more temperate areas like Florida or Mexico.

What are the symptoms?

The following symptoms typically begin in the very late summer and early fall and intensify through winter, then subside as spring progresses:

  1. Depressed mood, feelings of sadness
  2. Cravings for sweet or starchy foods
  3. Overeating
  4. Significant weight gain or loss
  5. Lack of energy
  6. Oversleeping or insomnia
  7. Fatigue
  8. Irritability
  9. Social withdrawal
  10. Difficulty concentrating
  11. Decreased sexual desire

Since lack of exposure to light seems to be the main trigger of SAD symptoms, one simple and immediate self-help technique is to increase your exposure to outdoor light by taking daily walks. Research suggests that early morning walks as the sun is coming up, or midday walks when the sun is the highest are best.

Ways We Treat SAD

Once the daylight is shorter, supplemental light therapy is one of the easiest and natural ways to treat SAD. There are numerous research studies supporting the beneficial effects of light therapy. Special light boxes which provide at between 2500 lux (which is ten times more light than an ordinary light bulb) and 10,000 lux are used to simulate light exposure. The daily goal is thirty minutes of direct facial exposure in the morning. You should face the light as it glows upon you, but you need not look at it. It is most helpful to start your light therapy regime in early autumn, ideally before symptoms begin, and continue until the natural light of happy and sunny days start again in spring. Research suggests that keeping a dark bedroom at night is as important as getting increased light during the daytime. This helps melatonin – which prompts sleep – to work correctly. To ensure a dark room, it is important to minimize or block the LED light from computers, TVs, clocks or anything else that emits a bright light.

Vitamin D, sometimes called ‘The Sunshine Vitamin’ will also help. Much research supports a connection between low vitamin D levels and SAD. Food sources for Vitamin D include cold water, fatty fish like cod, salmon, sardines, herring. Other nutrients helpful for people with SAD include our Membrosia Complex and Fluidizer, a tincture of St. Johns’ Wort (Hypericum) L-Tryptophan and amino acids such as 5-HTP and L-tryptophan. We cannot control the movements of the sun, but we can to a great degree control at least some of the effects of diminishing seasonal light on our bodies and minds. We are now in early autumn with winter around the corner. This is the best time to take the above recommendations into consideration to keep SAD at bay this year!