Banishing Winter Blues: Natural Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder

Banishing Winter Blues: Natural Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder

Does the onset of winter and the shortened length of daylight fill you with dread?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) typically begins in the fall and persists through the winter as the period of seen light shortens. The symptoms are depression, excessive sleeping, a withdrawn feeling, lowered sex drive, a general slowing down and craving carbohydrates. In the summer, these same people feel elated, active and energetic.

It is important to rule out some simple factors which are known to contribute to depression in general. These include nutrient deficiency or excess, drugs (including prescription, illicit, alcohol, caffeine, nicotine), hypoglycemia, aspartame consumption, hormonal imbalances, allergy, environmental factors and microbial factors. Any one of these may trigger depression and should be addressed.

Although there may be other contributing causes responsible for this effect, light exposure seems to be the most logical explanation. The antidepressant effects of full spectrum light on SAD has been demonstrated in well-monitored, controlled studies.

The body's internal clock, known as the circadian system, is regulated by the pineal gland. This gland is controlled by the presence or absence of external light, and synchronizes and coordinates the natural rhythms of body function. When the darklight cycle is altered, or a person ignores it and keeps irregular hours to work and rest, the body's internal rhythms are thrown off balance. Travel between time zones often results in jet lag. This can be a disorienting and debilitating condition caused by the upset of the body's internal clock.

Helpful Hormones

Melatonin is a pineal hormone that is secreted at night. It sets and maintains the internal clocks governing the natural rhythms of the body. Clinically, melatonin has been used in rhythm disturbances and sleep disorders (Unfortunately, Health Canada does not allow the sale of melatonin.) It also corrects daytime fatigue caused by the sudden changes of our light/dark environment. Although melatonin supplementation may be useful for jet lag and other sleep disturbances, a warning is needed here. Melatonin that prolongs the nightly melatonin rise may worsen SAD.

Brain serotonin levels are increased by melatonin. Low central serotonin levels have been linked with many compulsive disorders including impulsive violence, alcoholism, compulsive gambling, bulimia and overeating. Support of serotonin via nutrients can elevate mood, reduce aggression, increase the pain threshold, reduce anxiety, relieve insomnia and help with obsessive-compulsive syndromes. The serotonin-elevating effects of folic acid and B(12) are not fully understood but are responsible for the antidepressive effects of these nutrients

Low levels of B vitamins in general are associated with depression and behavioral changes, so a supplementation with a multi-vitamin containing high doses of all B vitamins should be considered.

The antidepressant effect of full-spectrum light is probably due to balancing of the altered circadian rhythm of melatonin synthesis and secretion by the pineal gland. Light boxes using the complete balanced spectrum of sunlight are used in the majority of SAD cases. The patient sits about 40 cm from the box keeping the head and eyes toward the box while reading or doing tasks. Most studies find that early morning sessions from 30 minutes to two hours using varying intensities of light bring improvement within a week.

Herbal Help

The antidepressant effect of St John's wort (Hypericum perforatum) has clearly been established in clinical trials over the past 10 years. The plant originated in Europe, Western Asia and North Africa, and is now widely distributed throughout temperate areas of the world. The red pigment hypericin from the flower is the main active constituent.

It has been found that St John's wort treatments lower the amount of light necessary to obtain a therapeutic effect, and that normal daylight may have a similar effect to intensive light therapy when incorporated with the herb.

Studies on the effect of St John's wort on melatonin released by the pineal gland may also reveal a possible mechanism for its antidepressant activity, along with modulation of serotonin receptors, the inhibition of enzymes which break down catchecolamines such as adrenaline and noradrenaline and the suppression of inflammatory mediators.

For an antidepressant effect, St John's wort with a standard extract dose of 2.7 mg of hypericin a day is recommended. This is the equivalent of 3 ml per day of a fluid extract (1:1) or 15 ml daily of a 1:5 tincture.

Recommended Reading:

Dealing With Depression Naturally

S Baume 127 pp (sc) $29.95

Depression and Natural Medicine

R Elkins 228 pp (sc) $14.95

Fighting Depression

H Ross 189 pp (sc) $14.95

Canadian Health Reform Products Ltd.

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By Jennifer Doan

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