Natural Remedies for SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder)

Winter Weather & Depression in Oregon: Are You S.A.D.?

While the falling leaves and crisp autumnal days mark a favorite time of year for many, the grey days can also cause many to experience feelings of loneliness, apathy, sleepiness or insomnia and a host of other symptoms. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to love about fall and winter; the return of sweater-weather makes for a season to savor. However, the comforting soups, hot ciders, the shorter days and grey clouds also coincide with statistical increases in feelings of sadness, depression and isolation. SAD is an acronym for Seasonal Affective Disorder; which mental health professionals now classify as a seasonal pattern of depression or bipolar disorder. There is another side of SAD that affects some people in the summertime that experience symptoms like agitation, insomnia and anxiety. Summertime SAD is usually an equal/opposite reaction to SAD in winter where people feel agitated, anxious and have insomnia in the summer.

Within my practice as a naturopathic, primary care physician in Portland, Oregon, I notice an increase in many of the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder in the patients who come to me for treatment during the fall and winter months. This article is not a substitution for medical advice. But, for those of us who just feel a little blue during some of the dark, cloudy days of fall and winter the following ideas may be helpful. With that said, let’s dive into some natural ways to improve health that might be helpful for kicking those wintertime blues.

Please see my article on the root causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder for a more in-depth look at the how and why SAD has become such a common part of the human experience.

Three ways to Treat SAD Without Drugs:

Get More Light:

Light therapy is a simple way for many of my patients to help alleviate the symptoms of SAD. Sometimes, patients opt to use a “lightbox” that gives off bright full-spectrum light at 10,000 lux (a measure of brightness) for 1-2 hours daily from October to March. For those who do use artificial light sources, I prefer my patients to complete their light therapy early in the morning so their internal body-clock gets set in a healthy circadian rhythm (waking/sleeping). Many DIY enthusiasts prefer to make their own lightboxes and found that even brighter lights at up to 30,000 lux were even more effective for them (just don’t hurt your eyes). Another way to get some light exposure is to use a tanning bed for 10 minutes a day, once a week. Although, be sure to use caution as excessive exposure to UV rays can cause sunburns and skin damage.
Another interesting way that people can maintain healthy Vitamin D levels through the winter is by building up their reserves of sun exposure during the warmer summer months. Dr. Holick, a professor at Boston University and author of the book “The Vitamin D solution,” suggests going outside for 10-15 minutes 3 times a week with no sunscreen (aside from the face) and wearing minimal clothing. His theory is that this may help build up one’s Vitamin D reserves as a means of stabilizing it over the colder winter months.

Behavioral Changes

Physical activity and exercise are important for all aspects of health and can have a huge impact on mood and wellbeing. Even though it’s tough, make a commitment to yourself and find physical activities. Simply taking a walk outside or attending a yoga class can be great ways to stay active. The important thing is to find physical activities that get you moving and go do them, even if it’s raining or snowy outside.
Another way to help with SAD is to see a therapist about the possible underlying causes of depression. Dealing with deeper psychological issues through ongoing therapy can help improve overall quality of life for many who experience seasonal depression.
The last behavioral factor that we’ll discuss is one that is often overlooked: the foods we eat. Too often, our eating habits have a tendency toward high inflammatory foods that contribute toward inflammation and poor health. Ingredients like sugar, fried foods, dairy, artificial-sweeteners and excessive alcohol can lead to inflammation of the digestive tract while also contributing to the decline of probiotics (good bacteria) that help the body absorb vital nutrients. In the cold winter months it may be tempting to turn to comfort food, but care should be used when we decide what to eat as our food choices affect our entire body chemistry, including our mood. Instead, eating vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, garlic, onions along with plenty of raw and leafy vegetables will help ensure your body has what it needs to be happy and healthy. Eating fish and nuts a few times a week can also help nourish your body while reducing gut inflammation.

Supplementation

According to a research study Conducted at Boston Medical center, “Vitamin D deficiency was thought to have been conquered, but it is now recognized that more than 50% of the world’s population is at risk for vitamin D deficiency. This deficiency is in part due to the inadequate fortification of foods with vitamin D and the misconception that a healthy diet contains an adequate amount of vitamin D.”
Thankfully, doctors can easily assess a patient’s Vitamin D levels through routine tests involving a simple blood draw. It’s also worth considering nutrient supplements to support healthy levels of the body’s neurotransmitters which are involved in regulating and stabilizing mood. When seeing a doctor, be sure they check for any other underlying health considerations that could be worsening SAD symptoms such as low thyroid or an underlying viral infection.

Conclusion

Thankfully, there is a growing body of research on the subject of SAD regarding how it develops and how to help those suffering from it. Scientists now believe that the symptoms of both summer and winter SAD are related to survival instincts that helped our ancestors survive thousands of years ago. But, the truth is we still don’t fully understand why SAD develops in some people and not in others. It is even quite possible that some people just simply need more light than others.

IF you’d like help treating your SAD in the Portland area, please contact me to book an appointment.

Yours in Health,
Dr Danielle Smith Anderson
Naturopathic Primary Care Physician in Portland, Oregon

NOTE: This article is not a substitute for medical help. If your symptoms last for more than two weeks or if you have thoughts of suicide then you are strongly encouraged to seek medical help immediately. While I do give my patients detailed medical advice/treatment including medications and lifestyle changes to help manage or alleviate SAD, there is no way that I can give that level of care in a general article written for everyone. Some home treatments may interact with your medications and/or conditions so it’s important to speak with your doctor before trying home remedies. If you’d like to schedule an appointment with me (Dr Danielle Smith Anderson) to discuss your specific situation in depth, I’d love to help you on a one-on-one level.

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