Here we are again, well into winter and the days are short and the nights long.
Living far from the equator, most of us have gotten used to, or not, getting up and going to work in the dark, or near dark, and coming home in similar conditions.
For most of us, it’s not a big deal. Yes we may feel our energy levels wane a bit, we’re a little less motivated to do usual activities and for some, feelings of blah.
For others however, the shorter days can bring on a deeper sense of sadness, low energy, moodiness, and overall severe mood disturbances beyond just the ‘winter blahs’ known as seasonal affective disorder or SAD.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
SAD is a type of depression that is fairly cyclical. It basically starts [winter] and ends [mid to late spring] at the same time every year but unlike classic depression, those with SAD don’t have thoughts of hurting themselves [thoughts of suicide], or feelings of worthlessness. SAD is more characterized by the following symptoms:
- Tiredness, low energy
- Depressed mood
- Difficulty with concentration & focus
- Decreased motivation
- Decreased libido
- Changes with appetite; often craving carbohydrate-dense and sugary foods
- Weight gain
What causes SAD?
The specific causes of SAD are unknown but the prevailing theories relate to how the length of daylight affects the levels of certain neurotransmitters & hormones and fluctuations in our circadian rhythm, a.k.a. our internal biological clock.
Risk factors for SAD include being female since it occurs more often in women versus men, age [younger people tend to be more at risk], family history, having clinical depression or bipolar disorder, and living far from the equator; rates increase the further you move north or south.
Any Seasonal Affective Disorder treatments?
Is one of the first line treatments. Using a lamp with a special bulb, light therapy mimics natural outdoor light; it starts to work in a few days to two weeks. Research is limited but it does appear to be effective for most people.
Of course there’s a drug for this. The theory is that depressed moods of any kind are due to lower levels of a few key neurotransmitters: serotonin, dopamine and norepinepherine.
Raising the levels of these chemicals is supposed to improve mood and symptoms of SAD but the research isn’t conclusive. The challenge with mood stabilizers is that it may take several weeks to a couple of months to notice a benefit.
Also, many different medications may need to be tried to find the one that works best which also has the fewest side effects.
Examining thoughts and beliefs related to the feelings associated with the symptoms of SAD may help as well.
What about nutrients for SAD?
Vitamin D levels drop during the fall and winter and don’t rebound till summer because of a lack of UVB radiation in sunlight during the darker days from October to April. Getting sun during the winter feels good and no doubt positively affects our mood but this has nothing to do with vitamin D.
The brain has loads of vitamin D receptors and vitamin D’s role is to influence the activity of genes including mood regulation. Research supports the role of this crucial vitamin D in improving mood overall, as well as, improving symptoms of SAD.
The brain loves omega 3 fats. The two main ones that we talk about in human health are EPA & DHA. EPA helps the brain cells, neurons, to function optimally whereas DHA can be thought of as the structural omega 3 fat.
Both are critical for optimal brain health and function. Omega 3 fats are potential anti-inflammatory fats and inflammation is known to drive depression.
Although the evidence is far from conclusive, there is enough epidemiological, laboratory, and clinical data to support the role of omega 3 fats in reducing the risk for, and treating, various forms of depression.
Magnesium levels in the body are linked to our circadian rhythm which not only regulates our energy levels but also influences our moods. Magnesium is a co-factor in the metabolism of serotonin and melatonin.
Insufficient magnesium levels can interfere with the conversion of serotonin to melatonin, the hormone that regulates our sleep cycles. Fluctuations in melatonin are seen in SAD.
Magnesium supplementation has also been shown to resolve depression and an adequate intake of magnesium may improve symptoms of SAD, as well as, lowering the risk for it in the first place.
Some degree of seasonal affective disorder is likely inevitable given how the lack of sunlight affects our brain chemistry.
You needn’t look further than your own experience. Getting out of bed at 6 am takes a lot less effort in July than it does in January. Animals, including humans, of all kind simply have more spring in their step and we generally feel better overall.
Regardless, the brain needs nutrients to be at its best and given that many of us miss the mark when it comes to vitamin D, omega 3 fats and magnesium, it’s conceivable that the lack of these contribute to a greater risk for SAD.
Getting more of these nutrients from food and supplements may just tip the balance in your favour; you have nothing to lose and possibly everything to gain.