Depression is an increasingly common occurrence in the United States. As the Fall and Winter months come rolling in, it is likely that there will be a notable increase in the cases of depression; diagnosed or otherwise.
Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD is a common form of depression that most frequently occurs during the winter. An estimated half a million Americans suffer from SAD, with the majority of the cases occurring between September and February. Familiarizing yourself with SAD increases the likelihood of recognizing it early and acquiring proper treatment.
Although it is uncertain what truly causes SAD, it has a strong association with reduced exposure to sunlight. Data shows that SAD is least common near the equator and increasingly common as one moves farther away from it.
Furthermore, the American Psychiatric Association has related SAD to biochemical imbalances in the brain that are triggered by reduced sunlight. Melatonin, which needs sunlight to function properly, plays a role in sleep quality and may also impact SAD occurrence – learn everything you need to know about melatonin here. Reduced sunlight also negatively impacts serotonin levels, which aids in mood regulation. Deficiency in these areas are frequently found among those with SAD.
Symptoms of SAD
As hours of sunlight decrease during the fall and winter, those with SAD will experience a variety of symptoms.
SAD shares many symptoms with classic depression and often causes:
- Malaise or disinterest in one’s normal activities
- Avoiding social interaction
- Weight gain
- Increased craving of carbohydrates
Although SAD most often occurs during the late Fall and Winter, it is possible to experience SAD during the summer. Symptoms of summer-related SAD usually manifest themselves as:
- Weight loss
- Reduced appetite
- Lowered libido
These two collections of symptoms may point to other conditions such as thyroid malfunction, hypoglycemia, and viral infections. For this reason, it is important to get an accurate diagnosis from a doctor before pursuing treatment for SAD.
Lighting the Way with Proper Treatment
Doctors frequently prescribe antidepressants and other mood regulators to those who present symptoms of depression or SAD. Even though these medications may provide temporary relief, it is not a long-term solution and the associated side-effects may cause more harm than good.
The following natural treatments provide an alternative to prescription medications.
1: Light Therapy
The most widely used, and perhaps most effective, method of treating SAD is light therapy. Those with SAD severe enough to impact their daily life frequently utilize a full-spectrum lightbox. It is suggested that the patient be exposed to this light daily for 15-30 minutes.
It is essential to be consistent with treatment as symptoms can quickly return without regular exposure. The power of this treatment can be seen in its 60 to 80 percent success rate of improving SAD symptoms.
Exercise is frequently prescribed to those with depression and SAD. Maintaining a healthy exercise routine has been shown to significantly improve depression symptoms. 30 minutes of even mild exercise done regularly for a 10-day period notably improves symptoms and mental wellness. More so than duration and intensity, consistent activity is recognized as an effective method of improving depression and expediting recovery.
3: Vitamin D
Multiple elements necessary to life are acquired through exposure to sunlight. Vitamin D is one such element. Unfortunately, vitamin D deficiency is a common occurrence and may be associated with SAD. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 50 percent of children between the ages of one and five are deficient.
Furthermore, Dr. Michael Holick, a leading Vitamin D researcher approximates that 50 percent of people are at risk of a Vitamin D deficiency or insufficiency.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of SAD, it may be worth having a doctor test your Vitamin D levels. Optimizing this area with a high-quality vitamin D supplement may decrease your risk of developing SAD and reduce its associated symptoms.
4: Cut Back Processed Foods
Removing processed foods from your diet may provide significant benefit in combatting SAD. Products containing refined sugars and fructose, as well as other common inclusions to processed foodstuffs have shown to negatively impact brain function and mental health. Improving food quality by avoiding processed foods and increasing your intake of whole, or natural foods can help improve your mood and various bodily functions.
5: Omega-3 Fats
Omega-3 fats are praised for the ability to safeguard mental health and improve brain function. This quality is unsurprising as roughly 60 percent of the brain is made up of a fat known as DHA.
To maintain proper brain function, a constant stream of omega-3’s is needed. A study conducted in 2009 found that those with reduced omega-3 levels in their blood presented a greater risk of developing depression or experiencing depression-related symptom. Those with increased omega-3 levels showed improvement in mood and mental wellness. Notable amounts of omega-3’s can be found in fish and various nuts. Improved levels can also be acquired through proper Omega-3 supplementation.
The B-complex of vitamins are known for their ability to improve energy and metabolic function – read our Ultimate B Vitamin Guide for more information.
Additionally, folic acid and vitamin B6 may improve mood and mental wellness. Incorporating a supplement containing an appropriate collection of B-vitamins can be beneficial in combatting the physical and mental degradation that comes with SAD. However, it is important to note that B vitamins may increase the effect of anti-depressants resulting in an undesired outcome. Speak to a physician before commencing Vitamin B supplementation.
7: St. John’s Wort
St. John’s Wort has been used for a long time as a natural treatment to combat mood disorders. The extracted form of this herb has shown to be as effective as Prozac when treating mild to moderate depression. A standard dosage of 300 mg at 0.3 percent hypericin taken three times daily has been shown to improve depression symptoms. Improvement of depression is usually seen after about eight weeks.
St. John’s Wort should not be used in conjunction with the following medications: anti-retrovirals, birth control pills, or any antidepressants. Speak with a physician before supplementing with St. John’s Wort.
8: Seek Out the Sun
Many locations do not get much sunlight during the winter. However, it is important to take any opportunity to get out in the sun. Leaving curtains and blinds open while you’re asleep allows any stray rays to hit your body in the morning, which helps you wake up and produce needed hormones and vitamins.
If you work indoors during the day, try to take lunch or other breaks outside. Better yet, take a walk at the same time. It may take a little extra effort to prepare for outdoor activities during the winter but the benefit of being out in the sun far outweighs the inconvenience of lacing those boots and zipping that jacket.
Weathering Winter Depression
Winter brings more than just colder temperatures and an excuse to drink hot chocolate. A more subtle and dangerous impact of winter is increased risk of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Being well-informed of the signs and symptoms of this stealthy condition as well as the many treatments mentioned above can help you combat the seasonal blues!