Find your happy place all year long with naturopathic treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that most commonly impacts people living in cold weather and dark winter places. Not surprisingly, incidence of SAD depends largely on where you live. For instance, in the United States, 9.7 percent of people in New Hampshire suffer from the condition, while only 1.4 percent in Florida report problems. For many people who suffer with SAD, symptoms begin in the fall and last through the winter. It affects women more than me and it is not very common in children. The medical definition, according to the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), says: “Depression and other symptoms for at least two consecutive years, during the same season every year. Periods of depression have been followed by periods without depression. There are no other explanations for the changes in mood or behavior.”
Like major depression, symptoms may include feeling depressed for a large part of the day, nearly every day, feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, low energy, and losing interest in activities once enjoyed. People often experience sleep disturbances (too much or not enough); changes in food cravings (particularly carbohydrates), appetite, or weight; difficulty concentrating, irritability, and difficulty getting along with others. Some withdraw from social interactions and may have thoughts of death or suicide. A naturopathic doctor may also rule out other physical illnesses that might cause similar symptoms such as mononucleosis or thyroid disease.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
What does sunshine have to do with Seasonal Affective Disorder?
The cause of SAD has been a focus of a great deal of research. Primarily, the reduced level of sunshine in autumn and winter can disrupt one’s internal clock. This can lead to feelings of depression. In the winter months, there is a drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter), that affects mood. Longer stretches of daily darkness increase melatonin levels, which make people sleepier and may impact mood.
Some believe there is an evolutionary cause for SAD, in that with lower energy output, demand for calories is reduced during the months when less food is available. It’s a theory, but that does not help us in modern society. For those who suffer with SAD there are gentle, effective and safe naturopathic approaches to keep moods in a more balanced state throughout the year.
Light therapy for SAD
Conventional treatment for SAD may include light therapy, psychotherapy, and medications. Naturopathic doctors also recommend light therapy and talk therapy, with the addition of prescriptive exercise, alongside nutritional and botanical medicine approaches.
Light therapy, a non-invasive, non-pharmaceutical approach, is effective for the treatment of SAD. Treatment includes sitting in front of a full-spectrum light box first thing in the morning, for a half hour from fall until the beginning of spring. It is advisable to sit close to the light source but do not look at the light. It’s important to note light therapy boxes filter out dangerous UV light, the same type of damaging light found in tanning beds, which is not effective for SAD.
The treatment is safe, but some drugs and herbal supplements may cause the retina to be more sensitive to light. A person using the drug Lithium, the nutritional supplement melatonin, or the botanical medicine St. John’s wort, should use special caution when using a light box. Light therapy is also contraindicated for those who have conditions where the skin is very sensitive to light, such as lupus. Light therapy is also not appropriate for those with bipolar disorder as it may trigger a manic episode.
Other naturopathic recommendations
Exercise also offers clear benefits for those who suffer with SAD because it helps raise one’s threshold for feeling stress. It actually helps dissipate stress and helps the body be better perfused (i.e., gets the blood moving), which amplifies other treatment approaches.
Adopting a positive attitude and a posture of gratitude as much as is possible can help with depression of all kinds. The more we study gratitude, the more we learn of its powerful impact.
Dietary supplements for SAD
There are a number of dietary supplements that show promise as part of a medically supervised treatment. Some studies show that supplementing with S-Adenosylmethionine (SAMe) offers help for SAD. This and other supplements need a doctor’s oversight, however, as they can interact with other medications and affect one’s quality of moods.
Naturopathic doctors also have ample training in botanical medicines and can put it to good use in helping those with SAD. The herb St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) may have a positive impact on SAD and depression. Though as mentioned, it should not be used with light therapy (see above). It is also not to be used if you are taking antiretrovirals, birth control pills, or antidepressant drugs like the SSRI Celexa or Prozac, so do not self-medicate.
Here are other options a naturopathic doctor may suggest:
- Turmeric (Curcuma longa): known for its anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer attributes, has also been studied and shown to help with symptoms of depression.
- Saffron (Crocus sativus): also shows a positive impact on depressive tendency and can be taken for those with SAD.
- B vitamins: supplementing with B vitamins may help with depressive symptoms. It’s also important to know that B vitamins may increase the way prescription antidepressants work, so if you take both, your dosing might need to be adjusted. Speak to your prescribing physician for guidance.
- Fish oil: can also be helpful in addressing symptoms of depression like those found in SAD. There have been some useful studies about the lack of seasonal affective disorder in Icelandic people. Here the average hours of sunshine go from nine hours a day in October to four hours a day in deep winter. Yet there is very low incidence of SAD. The hypothesis is that Icelanders consume a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids.
- Vitamin D: may also be helpful for those with SAD. So many people are deficient in vitamin D deficient, especially during months with less sunshine, so it makes sense to have your blood levels of vitamin D tested and supplement if indicated.
- Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP): 5-HTP is needed for us to create serotonin from the amino acid, L-tryptophan and is effective for treating depression. Finding the right dosage requires a trained medical professional. For those taking an SSRI, an antidepressant drug that inhibits the reabsorption of serotonin by neurons, 5-HTP will increase serotonin levels. So again, careful dosing is in order. Consult a naturopathic doctor to ensure you prescribed the right dosage.
With extensive training in therapeutic nutrition, naturopathic doctors also recommend a balanced, appropriate-for-you diet, based on your past history and current overall health with an eye to understanding your cultural and personal food preferences.
Just because the weather is cold and the days are short does not mean you have to be miserable and down. Effective naturopathic medicine approaches to SAD have helped many people find their happier place throughout the year.
This article is provided by the Institute for Natural Medicine, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, partnered with the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. INM’s mission is to transform healthcare in America by increasing both public awareness of naturopathic medicine and access to naturopathic doctors for patients. INM believes that naturopathic medicine, with its unique principles and practices, has the potential to reverse the tide of chronic illness that overwhelms existing health care systems and to empower people to achieve and maintain their optimal lifelong health. INM strives to achieve this mission through the following initiatives:
- Education – Reveal the unique benefits and outcomes of naturopathic medicine
- Access – Connect patients to licensed naturopathic doctors
- Research – Expand quality research of this complex and comprehensive system of medicine
Amy Rothenberg ND, DHANP is a contributor to INM and practicing licensed naturopathic doctor in Northampton, Massachusetts. Dr. Rothenberg is the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians 2017 Physician of the Year. Dr. Rothenberg’s writing can be found on NaturalMed.org, Better Nutrition’s Naturopathic Health Hub, Medium, Thrive Global, and The Huff Post. She is the proud mother of 3 adult children.