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Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)


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Are you a thriving ski bum this winter or are you finding that you are struggling this season?

The days get shorter; the nights get darker; the skies are cloudy; the outdoors is frigid; the social pressures of the holidays are exponentially growing! Many of us may have begun to experience physical and emotional shifts this time of year, whether we know them or not.  Some say it’s the weather, some say it’s the stress of the holidays, some say it’s daylight savings, and the list can go on and on.  If we look at the body and our environment as a whole, ALL of these can impact our body’s ability to function at its best.  So is it just the winter blues, or could it be something more deeply rooted? Seasonal depression, or its more technical term, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), is a unique form of depression with a history of coming and going during certain months of the year.

Symptoms

Before diving into the causes, let’s look at some common symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Many symptoms run hand in hand with Major Depressive Disorder. 

  • Little interest in doing things

  • Social Anxiety

  • Thoughts that the world is better off without them

  • Thoughts of self-harm

  • Irritability

  • Headaches

  • Difficulty Sleeping

  • Easily Overstimulated/Overwhelmed

  • Depleted energy levels

  • Increased Appetite

These symptoms can compound and get increasingly worse if the root cause is not addressed. Finding the root cause and early intervention treatment can be vital for a successful fall/winter for those suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder.  

Causes

Many people associate seasonal depression with populations that live further from the equator in areas that have gloomy skies and severe seasonal weather changes. The general ideology with that theory is less sunshine equals less happiness. While this concept is genuine, there is some science to look at to help us understand the best form of treatment for seasonal affective disorder. Sunshine is responsible for many things in our body, such as Vitamin D production, hormone regulation, and sleep/wake cycles. When one gets disrupted, it can create a chain reaction affecting many other bodily functions.  

When our Vitamin D stores get low, we cannot synthesize Serotonin, a mood-enhancing neurotransmitter vital to a positive outlook. The underproduction of Serotonin is common among those struggling with depression. Serotonin also is the precursor to melatonin, the neurohormone that tells us it is time to fall asleep. With an underproduction of melatonin, our brain will continue to meditate with excessive worry late at night, disrupting our sleep/wake cycles. 

Though, some might be experiencing an overproduction issue with melatonin. Daylight savings time causes it to become darker earlier in the day; melatonin is a light-sensitive hormone. When it gets dark, our biological clock will trigger to produce melatonin, even though it might be several hours early. Those with this form of Seasonal Affective Disorder will find themselves overly tired in the early afternoon, inhibiting social life, motivation, and interest in doing things. 

All forms of depression carry the potential of a genetic factor that causes one to struggle with Serotonin regulation in general. Diligent monitoring and treatment for these individuals are crucial to avoid severe suicidal ideation. 

The stress of the holidays can trigger seasonal depression or winter blues for some. The rise in pressure causes an abundance of cortisol in our bodies. Cortisol is our fight or flight hormone triggered by all forms of stress, including general anxiety, social anxiety, verbal arguments, overwhelming feelings, etc. When cortisol levels become too high, it impacts our brain’s ability to release mood-regulating hormones and neurotransmitters. High cortisol is also linked as a contributing factor to tense muscles/nerve pain, eating disorders, and insomnia. 

Holistic Treatment

If a pharmaceutical antidepressant is not for you, or if you are already on one and need additional support, there are several options to treat seasonal depression naturally to help maintain mood in the fall/winter.

5-HTP, short for 5-Hydroxytryptophan, is an amino acid protein that our body uses to create Serotonin. Since many of those struggling with Seasonal Affective Disorder or depression generally work with serotonin production, one of the essential tools is supplementing with 5-HTP so that our body has the chemical compounds needed to create more Serotonin.

Vitamin D supplementation might also be necessary. A primary care physician can check Vitamin D levels through routine blood work if you suspect this might contribute to your seasonal depression. Many integrative medicine doctors are also very familiar with Seasonal Affective Disorder and can help create a protocol of testing and nutrition to treat seasonal depression naturally.

Proper diet and nutrition are vital to regulating mood. Low blood sugar from not eating can cause impulsive behavior, irritability, and lethargy. Food is our brain’s fuel to create mood-regulating neurotransmitters such as Serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, etc. These neurotransmitters are made from amino acids found in protein from our daily food. Ensuring we eat enough protein (aim for 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight) daily is an excellent start to treating seasonal depression. Pro Tip: Focus on eating foods high in L-Tryptophan (which turns into 5-HTP), such as turkey, milk, cheese, fish, sunflower seeds, and chicken. 

Light Lamps with at least 10,000 lux help regulate our sleep/wake cycle. The lamp mimics sunlight, triggers our cortisol production, and helps us wake up. Using the light for 20-30 minutes daily before 10 am will increase energy levels and help motivate those struggling with seasonal depression. You do not need to stare at the lamp directly the whole time, but having it in your peripheral vision while performing other tasks in the morning is sufficient. 

Therapy with a clinician you trust is always helpful. Not only can they help navigate the struggle of daily stressors, but they can also teach valuable skills to help gain awareness around triggers and emotional patterns. There are specialized modalities of therapy to help address deep-rooted trauma that might be contributing to high anxiety and stress, such as ART and EMDR. As lives are constantly changing, so are our needs. A therapist is there to help you identify those needs and achieve your goals. 

If Seasonal Affective Disorder has reached a level of severity that causes you to feel unsafe, please seek help from a doctor or mental health facility immediately or call 911 if necessary. You are not alone; there is hope in treating seasonal depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder. Contact us if you need support this season.

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