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A man coloring over gray skies

Seasonal Affective Disorder

By:
Claire Sykes

Gone is the sunny warmth of summer. Breezes carry a chill that provokes a gloomy feeling in you. What gives? You may have seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

SAD is a depression that typically occurs during the winter, when there's less sunlight.

"SAD is one of the most common types of depression," says Amy Rothenberg, ND, a naturopathic doctor in Enfield, CT. "It's both very preventable and treatable, and responds well to natural-medicine approaches. And the earlier you seek care, the better."

Symptoms of SAD

Start by knowing what to expect with SAD.

  • Depression

    You may feel a general sadness and be fatigued and easily agitated.

    Hopelessness may creep in and, at the worst, despair and suicidal thoughts.

  • Loss of Focus and Energy

    Other symptoms include low energy and less interest in things you usually enjoy. Maybe it's hard for you to concentrate.

  • Changes to Sleeping Patterns

    You might also have trouble sleeping, or you may sleep too much.

  • Food Cravings

    You may crave and eat more simple carbohydrates and sweets, and gain weight.

  • Physical Aches and Pains

    Some people get headaches and muscle and joint pain.

Be sure to discuss your symptoms with your healthcare provider, in case they're due to something else.

What Causes SAD?

  • Hormonal Imbalance

    SAD "occurs more often in females between puberty and menopause, telling us it has something to do with the sex hormones," says Alfred Lewy, MD, psychiatrist and a SAD specialist, in Portland, OR.

  • Vitamin D Deficiency

    "You're also more susceptible if you live far from the equator, and there's a history of depression with yourself and/or within your family," Lewy continues. "Or, maybe you've got too little vitamin D, which your body makes with the help of the sun."

Preventing or Treating SAD

"It's both very preventable and treatable, and responds well to natural-medicine approaches," says Rothenberg. "And the earlier you seek care, the better."

Adjust your Body Clock

During the longer nights of winter, you naturally produce more melatonin, the best biomarker for your 24-hour body clock. Come morning, sunlight helps you wake up. When those rays hit the retina, they activate cells there to tell the brain's hypothalamus to stop the pineal gland from producing melatonin. But what if you have to get up before dawn? Winter's short days may disrupt your body clock, leading to SAD.

  • Face the Morning Sun

    To shift your body clock earlier, face the morning sun, but without looking at it. "You're safe getting about 20 minutes without sunscreen," says Dr. Rothenberg.

  • Try Light Therapy

    Also helpful (and evidence-based) is a medical-grade light-therapy box. Light from its cool fluorescent tubes is diffused by a clear Plexiglas cover that blocks any (minimal) harmful ultraviolet rays.

    "Right when you wake up, for 30 minutes to two hours a day, sit in front of the light box at the distance recommended by its manufacturer, usually within two feet, to get 2,000-10,000 lux [a measure of illumination]. But don't stare directly into the light," says Dr. Lewy. "If you're among the small percentage whose body clocks need more light in the evening, use the box then, instead, ending one hour before bedtime."

  • Supplement with Melatonin

    You can also shift your body clock with melatonin. "A low dose (0.3-0.5 milligrams) presents a more precise time signal," says Dr. Lewy. "If that amount doesn't make you sleepy, you can take it earlier than bedtime, otherwise right before sleep."

Other Remedies for SAD

  • Vitamin D

    Dr. Rothenberg cautions that too much vitamin D can cause toxicity. In addition to getting the vitamin from the sun and a supplement, it's found in cod, salmon, sardines, herring, and other fatty, coldwater fish.

  • B-Complex Vitamins and Omegas

    "A diet high in B vitamins and omega-3 essential fatty acids also helps with SAD," she says. "So does St. John's wort, 500-1,000 milligrams a day."

  • Lifestyle Changes

    She adds exercise, a good night's sleep, and the company of others to the list.

    "Even if you don't have SAD," Dr. Rothenberg says, "you can benefit from these healthful choices that only improve your overall well-being, no matter what the season."

Sources

"Associations between vitamin D levels and depressive symptoms in healthy young adult women" by D.C. Kerr et al, Psychiatry Res, 5/30/15

"Beat the winter blues! Seasonal affective disorder," The American Association of Naturopathic Physicians, www.Naturopathic.org

Personal communication: Alfred Lewy, Amy Rothenberg, 9/18

"Seasonal affective disorder," American Psychological Association, www.APA.org

"Seasonal affective disorder," National Institute of Mental Health, www.nimh.nih.gov