NATURAL MEDICINE WITH DR. MONIQUE: Methods to ward off SAD

By on December 16, 2014
When possible, health experts recommend a daily dose of sunshine to combat winter blues. PHOTO: SXC.hu.com

When possible, health experts recommend a daily dose of sunshine to combat winter blues. PHOTO: SXC.hu.com

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – The beginning of ski season is always exciting in Jackson, especially with this year’s early snowfall, but even the most diehard skier can struggle with the short days and early sunsets. For some, the effect is more profound, leading to problems with seasonal depression. If you’re feeling that way now, it’s important to know that you’re not alone.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is defined as serious mood changes specific to a season, usually winter. Some of the signs of SAD are sadness, feelings of hopelessness, guilt, worthlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, difficulty sleeping and irritability.

SAD is more prevalent the farther one lives from the equator. A recent study identified SAD occurring seven times more frequently in New Hampshire (which is at the same latitude as Jackson) than in Florida.

There are different theories regarding the reasons for SAD. One posits that reduced levels of sunlight may disrupt your circadian rhythms, leading to feelings of depression. Circadian rhythms are physical, mental and behavioral changes that respond to light and darkness in an organism’s environment. They are found in most living things, including animals, plants and many tiny microbes. Natural light also effects serotonin, a hormone responsible for wellbeing as well as melatonin, which is responsible for sleep and mood.

Besides living far from the equator you are at increased risk if you are female, between the ages of 18 and 30, have a history of depression or have a family history of SAD. If you are experiencing these symptoms seek professional help to rule out other medical conditions that need treatment.

Non-pharmaceutical treatments for SAD include:

Light therapy: Research studies have reported that 30 minutes of direct light can treat SAD. In the winter a light box emitting 10,000 lux of light are recommended for treatment. Sixty percent of people respond to this therapy if it is done properly. It has been successfully used for decades in Siberia and northern Europe. Another tool to help reset your circadian rhythm is a circadian lamp. This is a bedside lamp that slowly becomes brighter at a pre-set time, sparing you the jolt of an alarm, when it’s still dark outside.

Vitamin D: Recent research on Vitamin D supports its connection to SAD, with low levels of D correlating with increased SAD. Checking 25–OH vitamin D will help you determine if you are low. Foods that are rich in vitamin D include fatty fishes like salmon, herring, mackerel, sardines and milk, cheese and egg yolks. Exposure to the sun is a more commonly known source of vitamin D, but must be balanced with one’s risk for skin cancer.

Essential fatty acids: There are two essential fatty acids: omega 3 and omega 6. Our bodies cannot produce these oils, so we must consume them in our diet. Epidemiological evidence shows that as omega 3 deficiency increases, the rate of depression increases. Sources of omega 3s are fish, flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds and their respective oils.

Five-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) and Tryptophan: Tryptophan is converted to 5HTP, which is then converted to serotonin. Both of these are available as dietary supplements and are effective in treating insomnia, most commonly witnessed in the form of the post-Thanksgiving meal coma.

Vitamin B6: This vitamin is needed for the conversion of tryptophan to 5HTP and, as stated above, is needed for serotonin.

St John’s Wort: This herb has been used in Europe for the treatment of mild depression for years. I do not use it in my practice because of its undesirable interaction with a variety of medications.

Exercise: Being active is very helpful, especially if you can get outside. Studies universally report that exercise helps depression. Socializing with friends can be great as a method to pick you up. Meditation, yoga and guided imagery all can help with stress management.

Remember, if you’re struggling with these dark, short days, you’re not alone. Try some of these methods and take heart – the winter solstice is December 21, after which the days begin to get longer!

Monique Lai, ND, is a naturopathic doctor and natural health expert with a family practice in Jackson Hole.

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