Treat Seasonal Affective Disorder Naturally
By Carmela Damico
What it means to be SAD
Do you find yourself toward the end of fall dreading the short, dark winter days ahead? If so, you're not alone. Distinct lapses in motivation and energy are not uncommon with the onslaught of winter, especially after the clocks are turned back. Most people, however, adjust after a few days or weeks and ease back into their usual selves and regular routines. But for a small percentage of the population, this adjustment doesn't happen. The lag in motivation and energy levels gives way to gloomy moods and fatigue, disruption of sleeping and eating patterns and the possibility of clinical depression. The effect such a dramatic change in behavior has on a life can be devastating. In the worst cases, it can be fatal.
Prior to 1984, this seasonal shift in mood was known simply as the "winter blahs" or "holiday blues" and was not yet medically recognized. After conducting a vast, ongoing study of mood in relation to shortening days and lessening light, Dr. Norman Rosenthal gave what he found to be a proven mood disorder its name: Seasonal Affective Disorder, or what is more commonly known as SAD. Dr. Rosenthal constructed a diagnostic list of the most common symptoms of SAD and pioneered studies of treatment with artificial forms of light.
What causes SAD?
Since Dr. Rosenthal's discovery, science has made great bounds in determining what leads to SAD. On the surface, the cause is simple: SAD is a result of lower amounts of natural light that reach us during the late fall and winter months. But what physiological effect does natural light have on human beings? And why does less light induce mental and physical depression in some?
Most recent research has shown that people with SAD have over-functioning pineal glands. When the body is exposed to less light than usual, the pineal gland is designed to release more melatonin into the brain's synapses. This is why most of us naturally feel the need to sleep at night rather than in the morning or middle of the day.
Our biological clocks are not mythical little tickers. They're complex inner systems that science, at last, is learning to analyze. According to Mark Caldwell, who wrote an extensive and highly informative editorial for Discover Magazine on the causes of SAD, says "In the brain, a recently discovered cluster of nerve cells called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, or SCN, appears to be at the heart of (biological) timekeeping. The SCN is actually a pair of structures (as with most parts of the brain) in which one half sits in the left hemisphere and half in the right, just behind and a bit below the eyes. The SCN depends on light for synchronizing the inner clock with the cycles of light and darkness in the world outside."
In other words, without the forward push of light on the SCN, the biological clock can falter and drag behind. That's how it falls out of coordination with the pineal gland, which, in its confused state, begins to produce an excess of melatonin.
Aside from the fact that melatonin is a hormone that helps induce sleep, not all that much is known about it. Researchers pinpointed melatonin as a causative factor in SAD because its production peaks in the evening and wanes during the day and it is at its lowest rate in the summer and highest in the winter.
Who gets SAD?
Certain groups are much more susceptible to SAD than others. The further North you live, the more likely you are to acquire the disorder. For example, SAD is seven times more common in Washington state than it is in Florida. In Western Washington, where the cloud cover hovers for months on end, it is three times more common than it is just East of the mountains.
Women, more prone to depression in general than men, are diagnosed with SAD four times more often than men. As with most forms of depression, research conducted by the National Institutes of Health has shown that genetics and family history also play an important role in determining whether or not a person is prone to develop SAD. One study also found that SAD patients were more likely than not to have alcoholism in their families.1
How to stop being SAD, naturally
Because the research points to low levels of light as the primary culprit for SAD, it makes sense that the most common form of therapy used to treat this disorder is one that directly combats the cause. Bright light therapy is by far the most common method used to treat SAD. What bright light therapy consists of is sitting in front of a full spectrum light for 15 minutes to three hours a day, depending on the severity of the depression. Ideally, the SCN detects the light, translates it and communicates it to the pineal gland, which in turn slows down its accelerated production of melatonin.
The Living Sunshine light-box-manufactured by Alpine Technologies-is an excellent example of a full spectrum light. Designed to be easily portable, it is capable of providing the user with the same physiological benefits acquired after a day in the sun, minus the body's absorption of ultraviolet rays! The output of the lamp is 10,000 LUX, a standard measurement of light considered by researchers to be a therapeutic level of illumination. Studies performed in conjunction with this light indicate that melatonin levels in the blood drop rapidly with exposure.
Certain herbs are also known to work well for people suffering from SAD. St. John's Wort, taken in therapeutic dosages, boosts serotonin levels and serves as a tonic for the nervous system, aiding in a general sense of well being.
Insomnia, a prime symptom of SAD and a potentially debilitating disorder by itself, can be treated with various herbs, individually or in conjunction with one another. Valerian root is a long-trusted, gentle but powerful sleep aid. Combined with herbs such as hops and passionflower, valerian can be even more effective. Nights on end of restless sleep can depress anyone's mental state. Ensuring restful sleep is an imperative step to alleviating SAD.
As always, diet plays a crucial role in how we feel, mentally and physically. When the days become shorter and the weather unfavorable, many of us become less active. We also start to eat more starchy and sugary foods. This combination of inactivity and increased consumption of carbohydrates can have an impact on depression and lethargy even when the sun is shining. Whole grains, especially brown rice, oats, millet and barley, stimulate the nervous system and are thought to be mood elevators. Exercise is a wonderful remedy for reducing stress, too, raising serotonin levels and relaxing muscles. Physical activity helps us sleep more deeply. Combining proper diet with exercise is essential to mental well-being.
Perhaps the best bet to overcoming SAD is to combine therapiesfull spectrum light, proper diet, herbs and exercise. Most natural therapies for SAD have no side effects and can be blended to form a system that works for you individually.
1 "Seasonal Affective Disorder", Current Opinion in Psychiatry, January 1994, Raymond W. Lan, M.D., The Institutes of Mental Health
Are You S.A.D.?
Sleep problems: unusual desire to oversleep and difficulty
staying awake but, in some cases, disturbed sleep and early morning
Lethargy: Feelings of fatigue and inability to carry out normal routine.
Overeating: Craving for carbohydrates and sweet foods, usually resulting in weight gain.
Depression: Feelings of misery, guilt and loss of self-esteem, sometimes hopelessness and despair, sometimes apathy and loss of feelings.
Social Problems: Irritability and desire to avoid social contact.
Anxiety: Tension and inability to tolerate stress.
Loss of libido: Decreased interest in sex and physical contact.
Mood Changes: In some sufferers, extremes of mood and short periods of hypomania (overactivity) in spring and autumn.
Immune system: weakened during the winter, and are more vulnerable to infections and other illnesses.