S.A.D – Your Guide to Beating the Winter Blues Naturally
As the days grow shorter and the sunshine fades giving way to rainy days and dark nights, many of us get a touch of the blues.
It seems all too easy to enter winter hibernation mode and stay indoors with comfort food and the couch.
Most people are only mildly affected by feelings like this during winter and can continue on with everyday life – possibly with the help of a few extra layers of clothing!
For some people however, the winter months have a more negative impact on mood and behavior resulting in a condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, aptly abbreviated S.A.D.
S.A.D is becoming a more commonly recognised ailment since first being described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1984. It is believed to affect up to 10% of the general population, and is more commonly seen in women than men.
Symptoms of S.A.D include fatigue, lowered motivation, hypersomnia (sleeping too much), increased appetite and weight, loss of libido, carbohydrate cravings, irritability and reduced sociability.
These symptoms only occur during winter months, developing slowly as the seasons progress and go into remission in the warmer summer months.
Suspected Causes of S.A.D
Evidence from epidemiological studies shows an increased prevalence of S.A.D in populations further from the equator and with more northerly latitudes where there is reduced exposure to sunlight during winter months.
Therefore seasonal changes in daylight patterns are believed to cause the behavioural changes seen in S.A.D.
The exact mechanisms behind how and why daylight changes cause S.A.D are still not fully understood, the most likely explanation being that there are a number of interrelating factors involved. These include:
Disruptions to Your Biological Clock (aka circadian rhythm)
As the amount of sunlight reduces during winter months, your biological clock controlled by the hypothalamus in the brain is disrupted causing disturbances to your sleep patterns and possibly leading to feelings of depression.
Melatonin is a hormone produced by our brains in response to darkness that also helps to regulate our sleeping patterns. It is hypothesised that excess levels of melatonin produced during the day in darker winter months cause the excessive sleepiness experienced by S.A.D sufferers.
Large scale population studies have found that genetic influences can play a part in determining if an individual is more or less likely to develop S.A.D.
However, like many conditions, we have the ability to compensate for inherited susceptibility to SAD through healthy lifestyle and dietary choices.
Neurotransmitters are mood-regulating chemicals produced by our bodies and found mostly in the brain. The major neurotransmitters associated with mood disorders such as S.A.D are serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine.
Low serotonin levels are often found in individuals with SAD giving rise to symptoms such as carbohydrate cravings, increased appetite, sleeps disturbances and reduced sociability.
Dopamine plays an important role in retinal light reception and response as well as mood regulation along with noradrenaline.
Symptoms indicating deficiency of these neurotransmitters include lack of motivation and perseverance, reduced sense of pleasure in activities previously enjoyed, and compulsive decision-making.
Certain nutrients are vital for the healthy functioning of our nervous system and deficiencies can lead to depressive states such as S.A.D. Nutritional supplementation may be required to restore optimal nutritional status and improve mood.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids- Omega 3 fatty acid deficiencies are a well known contributing factor to mood disorders. Interestingly, population studies have found that countries with a higher fish intake (rich in omega 3) have a lower incidence of S.A.D regardless of geographical location.
Therefore, Omega 3 Fish oils are a recommended supplement for SAD.
B Complex Vitamins– B-vitamins are essential for energy production as well as facilitating the synthesis of many neurotransmitters. B-vitamin depletion is common, particularly with the consumption of soft drinks, coffee and tea and when under stress.
Vitamin D– Vitamin D deficiency is a common health concern often made worse during winter as many of us are put off from heading outside by the weather. Amongst a broad range of health benefits, a role for Vitamin D in maintaining mental health is also emerging.
S.A.D, sufferers are often found to have low levels of vitamin D and treatment with vitamin D supplementation has shown encouraging results in a preliminary trial.
How to Give Yourself a Brighter Outlook
See More Sunshine
Dating back as far as the second century, sunlight has been regarded as an important factor essential for human health. The ancient Greek physician, Aretaeus, stated that ‘lethargics are to be laid in the light, and exposed to the rays of the sun for the disease is gloom’.
There is now an overwhelming amount of evidence showing that light therapy, particularly in the morning, is effective for improving S.A.D and has a positive, normalising effect on our circadian rhythms and melatonin secretion.
Spend as much time outdoors in the fresh air and sunlight as possible each day. When inside, open your curtains, sit near your windows or skylights and ensure you get as much sunlight into your home and work areas as possible.
Physical exercise is a great way to improve mood, relieve stress and anxiety and boost energy levels. Exercising outside means you get the added benefits of sunlight for some serious mood enhancement.
Include plenty of protein in your diet
Protein provides the building blocks required for neurotransmitter synthesis so make sure you include good quality sources in each meal and snack throughout the day.
Protein also helps to sustain energy levels during the day and curb sugar and carbohydrate cravings.
For further information or individualised health advice and specific product recommendations, speak to your Emed practitioner today.
Miller, A.L. 2005, Epidemiology, Etiology and Natural Treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder, Alternative Medicine Review, Vol. 10(1), pgs 5-13
Lam, R.W. Levitan, R.D. 2000, Pathophysiology of seasonal affective disorder: a review, Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, Vol. 25(5), pgs 469-480
Eagles, J.M. 2004, Seasonal affective disorder, The British Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 182, pgs 174-176
Parker, G. Gibson, N.A. Brotchie, H. Heruc, G. Rees, A. Hadzi-Pavlovic, D. 2006, Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Mood Disorders, The American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 163(6), pgs 969-