Are you one of the 20 million people who dreads the fall?
While many people love the changing leaves and cooler days, for people with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), fall feels like the curtain is coming down on them.
If you have SAD, the shorter days means depression is around the corner. It comes like clockwork and it changes everything.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
SAD is a type of depression that fluctuates with the seasons. It most commonly begins in the fall (usually between September and November) and lessens in the spring (usually between March and May).
Because it involves the shortening of daylight, it’s more common the farther north you go (where the winter brings more darkness). In any given winter, 6 percent of the US population meet the criteria for SAD, and another 14 percent suffer from a less severe form of depression commonly called the “winter blues.” While SAD can affect anyone including children and pets, ¾ of all people with SAD are women.
Each year people who suffer from SAD develop a predictable set of symptoms:
- Hard time getting to sleep and difficulty waking up in the morning.
- Low energy
- Increased appetite (especially for sweets and starches)
- Weight gain
- Poor concentration
- Tendency to isolate
- Low mood
If you have SAD or have a loved one who does, you know it can dramatically affect every aspect of your life. It’s so disruptive in large part because it happens every year and hangs around for such a long time, lasting up to four or five months until days become longer again.
Since SAD is linked to a lack of light, people with SAD may also become depressed during cloudy weather at any time of year, or if they are confined to windowless offices or basement apartments.
What Causes SAD?
While the jury is still out, researchers are zeroing in on a likely hypothesis:
It’s believed that Vitamin D deficiency and lack of sunlight combine to produce disruptions in the part of the brain called the hypothalamus.
This disruption impacts our circadian rhythms, which leads to lower levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, and the symptoms of depression that are the hallmark of SAD.
To compound the issue, the shorter days signal the pineal gland to convert more serotonin into the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin.
This leads to even lower levels of serotonin and higher levels of melatonin.
This is a perfect recipe for low mood, sleepiness, and lethargy….the most common symptoms of SAD.
6 Natural Therapies for Overcoming Seasonal Affective Disorder
The first 3 suggestions come from the dedicated researchers at the Center For Environmental Therapeutics (CET) at Columbia University, which has worked hard to help us understand the best treatment options for SAD. I would definitely suggest checking out their excellent website.
1) Experiment with Bright Light Therapy
Bright light delivered through the use of a lightbox is generally thought to be the most helpful tool for alleviating SAD symptoms. According to the CET, 75 percent of patients have significant improvement in their depressive symptoms with around a 30-minutes daily exposure to bright light. Research suggests that the light needs to be 10,000 lux illumination.
As there is much variety in lightboxes available, I would suggest using a model that has been tested in research like this one.
To get the most out of your light box and to avoid any risks, consult with your doctor and follow the guidelines in the SAD Toolkit, created by the Center for Environmental Therapeutics.
2) Use a Dawn and Dusk Simulator
This is a lesser known form of light therapy which uses much lower levels of light to simulate a summer sunrise and sunset. In the morning, one is awoken to increasing bright light and exposed to slowly dimming light in the evening.
Drs. Michael Terman and David Schlager demonstrated the effectiveness of Dawn and Dusk Simulation Therapy in the late 80s. Their research found that a dim dawn light signal decreases morning melatonin production which makes it easier to get up in the morning. Dusk light simulation appears to promote more regulated sleep pattern by normalizing circadian rhythms and leading to improvements in mood.
Here is a Dawn Dusk Simulator that research has show to be effective.
3) Try Negative Ion Therapy
Negative ions are oxygen molecules that contain an extra electron. Exposure to these ions has shown to improve mood (by raising serotonin), relieve stress, and boost daytime energy.
High negative-ion environments include oceans, forests and waterfalls. Think about how you feel in those places!
In terms of the treatment of SAD, research has shown that “high-density negative ions are as helpful to people with Seasonal Affective Disorder as light therapy” when delivered through an air ionizer.
And remember that a light box has been shown to help 75 percent of people with SAD!
At this point, I don’t have a recommendation for a negative-ion producing device. CET has found that most commercially available air ionizers do not produce enough ions to be therapeutically useful for treating SAD, and the few that do produce enough ions emit toxic ozone that make these devices unsafe.
CET is currently developing a safe and powerful negative-ion system for home use. If you are interested in receiving an announcement when this device is available, click here.
4) Eat and Supplement for Serotonin Boosting
As low serotonin is one of the root causes of SAD, it is essential to take steps to raise serotonin levels. This includes eating adequate protein to have enough Tryptophan in your diet to make serotonin (shoot to get 70 to 75 grams a day) and supplementing with amino acids known to raise serotonin levels, including 5HTP or Tryptophan.
To learn more about how to raise serotonin levels using food and supplements, check out this blog.
5) Add a Vitamin D Supplement
If you have Seasonal Affective Disorder, go to your doctor and have your Vitamin D levels tested. To get the the most accurate measure of your Vitamin D status ask your doctor to test your 25-hydroxyvitamin D level. Normal range for this test is 50-70ng/ml. If you are below this, ask your doctor about taking a Vitamin D supplement. While on Vitamin D supplements, make sure you have your provider test your levels every 3 to 6 months to make sure your levels have not gone too high.
6) Get Outside
I know that the last thing many people want to do when it’s cold is to go outside.
Just because it’s cold and days are short, doesn’t mean it’s not sunny, especially in the middle of the day. One idea is to bundle up and take a break from work with a brisk walk. It’s the best way to get your vitamin D up and give your serotonin a boost.
What’s Your Plan?
The one good thing about SAD is that you know when it’s coming (unlike other types of depression). You might even know the day that it sets in every year.
So you need a plan!
You need to know what you are going to do and when you are going to start doing it.
See if you can figure out when the curtain falls for you every year, and a month before your “curtain date,” start some of the practices above.
I have seen these practice help many people avoid the “fall” of SAD. I sincerely hope they help you.
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In good (mental) health,
Dr. Josh Friedman has more than 25 years experience in mental health as a client, psychologist, and functional nutrition practitioner. After working in the field for a few years, he realized how many people were still struggling with depression and other mental health issues even after years of therapy and medication. Over time he became increasingly uncomfortable with the limitations of standard psychiatric treatment and knew there had to be a better way. Over the past decade and a half, he has committed himself to learning as much as he could about the root causes of mental health symptoms. To share this information and to help people get unstuck, he started Alternative Mental Health Solution.