Dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder

The winter blues

SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder, is a mood disorder that typically occurs with a lack of sunlight during the winter months. It is also colloquially known as the “winter blues.”

Two percent to 3% of the Canadian population are estimated to suffer with SAD during the winter and 10% to 15% are believed to suffer from a milder form of it, called subsyndromal SAD or dysthymia.

Symptoms of SAD include depression, anxiety, fatigue, somnolence or increased sleep time and overeating, craving all forms of sugar and carbohydrate-rich foods like breads, chips and pasta. Increased appetite and lack of physical activity contribute to weight gain during the winter. Other symptoms include brain fog, poor thinking and decision-making and loss of interest in normal activities and social activities.

The condition is believed to be caused by, in large part, a disruption of the normal biological clock within humans called the circadian rhythm. Lack of sunshine affects the pineal gland that is stimulated by sunlight on photoreceptors in the eyes. The pineal gland is also connected to clusters of nerve cells that produce serotonin and other hormones like the hypothalamus.

The lack of sunshine inhibits pineal gland activity, which decreases serotonin production in different areas of the brain responsible for mood. When serotonin levels are low, the body craves carbohydrates. Furthermore, low serotonin leads to many of the symptoms associated with SAD. Other neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine may also be affected by SAD.

A balanced diet is recommended. Limiting junk food high in sugars and processed carbohydrates is strongly suggested. A balanced diet would include some protein, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and cereals. Healthy oils, such as from nuts, seeds, plants and fish are also suggested.

Exercise is known to improve mood. Even during the shortened daylight of winter, it is important to continue a regular exercise program. Walking is a great low impact form of activity that can help to improve SAD symptoms and improve mood. Other winter forms of exercise include working out in a gym, aerobics, swimming, skiing, cross-country skiing, skating and other ice sports.

Light therapy can also help treat the symptoms of SAD. Full-spectrum, high-intensity light that mimics a summer’s day can help improve SAD symptoms and improve mood. A light that emits 10,000 lux of intensity or more is recommended. Twenty to 30 minutes of light therapy has been shown to improve mood, increase energy and wakefulness. The light therapy can be stimulating so it is important to use it in the morning or afternoon and probably not in the evening before bed.

SSRIs, or Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, are the main class of prescription drugs that are used to treat SAD. They increase serotonin levels in the brain and the nervous system by inhibiting its breakdown at nerve junctions. Prozac (fluoxetine), Celexa (citalopram), Zoloft (sertraline), Paxil (paroxetine), Lexapro (escitalopram) are commonly prescribed SSRIs for SAD. Wellbutrin (buproprion) is another drug that raises dopamine and norepinephrine levels and is prescribed for SAD.

Tryptophan is a naturally occurring amino acid found in many protein foods including meat, dairy products, nuts and seeds, whole grains like oats, fruit like bananas and chocolate. Tryptophan is a direct precursor to 5-hydroxy tryptophan which is then used in the body to make serotonin.

Increasing foods high in tryptophan can be a good way to help improve serotonin levels. Turkey and dairy products, like milk, cottage cheese and yogurt are good sources of tryptophan.

Supplementing with isolated tryptophan or 5-hydroxy tryptophan, or 5-HTP, can be a good way to help increase serotonin and other hormone levels in the brain and nervous system. These supplements are available in natural health stores or some pharmacies. Tryptophan is also available by prescription. It is important to note you should probably not take tryptophan or 5-HTP if you are on a prescription SSRI or other antidepressant, unless you talk to a licensed healthcare professional.

Common side effects of tryptophan or 5-HTP include nausea, upset stomach, skin rash and sleepiness. Like other serotonin drugs, tryptophan can increase aggressiveness and anger in some individuals and can inhibit intimate desire and performance. However, it is important to note that tryptophan or 5-HTP usually causes fewer side effects than prescription drugs.

Other natural medicines used to treat SAD include amino acids like tyrosine and herbal supplements, such as Saint John’s wort, Rhodiola, Siberian ginseng, Ashwaghanda and green tea. Fish oils and vitamin D have also been suggested to help improve mood.

The information provided in this article does not, and is not intended to, constitute medical advice. All information and content are for general information purposes only.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Doug Lobay is a practicing naturopathic physician in Kelowna, British Columbia.

He graduated with a bachelor of science degree from the University of British Columbia in 1987 and then attended Bastyr College of Natural Health Sciences in Seattle, Washington, where graduated with a doctorate in naturopathic medicine degree in 1991. While attending Bastyr College, he began to research the scientific basis of naturopathic medicine. 

He was surprised to find many of the current major medical journals abounded with scientific information on the use of diet, vitamins, nutritional supplements and herbal medicines.

Doug is a member of the College of Naturopathic Physicians of British Columbia and has practiced as naturopathic family physician for more than 30 years.  He maintains a busy practice in Kelowna where he sees a wide age range of patients with various ailments.

He focuses on dietary modification, allergy testing, nutritional assessments, supplement recommendation for optimal health, various physical therapy modalities, various intravenous therapies including chelation therapy.

An avid writer, he has written seven books on various aspects of naturopathic medicine that are available on Amazon and was also a long-time medical contributor to the Townsend Letter journal for doctors and patients, where many of his articles are available to view on-line. He has also given numerous lectures, talks and has taught various courses on natural medicine.

Doug enjoys research, writing and teaching others about the virtues of natural health and good nutrition. When not working, he enjoys cycling, hiking, hockey, skiing, swimming, tennis and playing guitar.

If you have any further questions or comments, you can contact Dr. Lobay at 250-860-7622 or [email protected].

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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