Seasonal Affective Disorder

Do the Winter Months Have You Feeling SAD?

Have you noticed as winter approaches and the daylight lessens, your feelings change? Your motivation to see people and do the things you enjoy really diminishes, and all you want to do is stay home? If you had your choice, you’d stay in bed most of the day because you just don’t have the energy to live a happy and productive life.

You’re not making this up. There is a disease known as SAD. If you struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), it can feel as if a dark, heavy cloud of despair follows you around, impacting your outlook on everything.  You can’t escape it.

Is SAD Just a Case of the Winter Blues?

SAD is a more exaggerated case of the winter blues. It’s a type of clinical depression that is related to the change in seasons, usually beginning in fall or early winter and ending in spring, peak months occurring between December through February.  Less commonly, the opposite pattern occurs where symptoms are triggered in the late spring or summer.

Symptoms are very similar to depression where you may feel depressed, sluggish or have low energy most of the day.  Feelings of hopelessness, unworthiness, or guilt can plague someone who is suffering from SAD.  Difficulties in sleep and changes in appetite or weight are common, as are problems with concentration and lack of interest in activities like spending time with loved ones that you once enjoyed.  And like depression, frequent thoughts of death or suicide can occur in severe cases.

Women are more at risk from suffering from SAD than men, and where you live plays a role in your chances of being impacted by SAD.  The farther north or south you live from the equator, increases your chances of suffering from SAD.

As the seasons shift, there is a decrease in the amount of light we experience daily, which has ramifications on our circadian rhythm.  Sunlight is a powerful trigger in the production of neurotransmitters and hormones like serotonin, melatonin and vitamin D that contribute to our feelings of well-being and happiness.  In fact, serotonin rises when you’re exposed to bright sunlight1.  It’s a beautiful and complicated biochemical orchestra that plays within you, involving photoreceptors in the eyes and skin, the pineal gland in the brain, neurotransmitters, hormones and more…all impacting your mood and behavior.

Discerning Between Sadness and Depression

It can be tricky to discern the difference between sadness and depression. Sadness is a normal human emotion that can come and go just like storm clouds. It’s normal to be sad due to a triggering life event, or feel down because of the state our world is in. With sadness, there is usually a definable reason behind the emotion, and with self-care, it will move through you. With depression though, it colors almost every aspect of life, as if you’re wearing grey tinted glasses and living under a dark cloud.

There is always a cause for feelings of sadness and depression!

Our society doesn’t value inner perceptions. Feelings such as unworthiness, grief, hopelessness, a history of trauma, as well as biochemical and nutritional imbalances, can all be at the root of long-standing depression. As a functional medicine practitioner, I am committed to understanding and getting to the source of your sadness and depression.

Conventional Treatments for SAD

The three most common conventional treatments for SAD are light therapy, counseling, and pharmaceuticals. Light therapy is one of the most effective conventional treatments for SAD. It consists of daily and consistent exposure to an artificial light source, or “light box.” The light helps to restore normal circadian rhythm. Counseling, in the form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has shown to have beneficial results, where new skills and awareness around thinking and behavior patterns are gained. Finally, there are several pharmaceutical approaches to the treatment of SAD, many of which include some form of anti-depressants. However, my background and experience has shown that is often not necessary if you are able to implement my recommendations for self-care and work with an integrative health practitioner.

Self-care and SAD

Self-care and well-being practices, as well as relevant dietary changes, herbs and supplements, acupuncture and homeopathic treatments, form the heart of my treatment plans.

Please click here to read more on Meticulous Self Care.

Move for a Healthier Mood

Proper movement and exercise release specific neurotransmitters and endorphins (feel-good brain chemicals that can greatly support your mood and brain health). Frequency and consistency are more important than intensity. I had a woman I was working with who, when she first started with me, was able to only walk for 10 minutes, once a day. As she began to feel better, she increased it to 10 minutes twice daily. When you first start, if you are only able to do 10 minutes a day, that is wonderful! Know that with time, this will increase as you become emotionally and physically stronger. One year later, she completed a bike ride of 25 miles a day for four days in a row, raising money for breast cancer awareness!

If you can, grab a friend to walk with you; the company will be supportive of your healing.  Walking in the morning sunshine is especially helpful as the photoreceptors in your retina get stimulated, triggering the production of serotonin.  Serotonin and melatonin work hand in hand so being exposed to the early morning light might help you sleep better at night.

Focus on Feeling Good

If you are suffering from depression and SAD, it is definitely not easy to
prioritize your well-being and capitalize on your ability to feel good. This is one of those moments in life, where it’s important to know when to ask for help from people you feel close to and can trust. This will help boost feel – good chemicals and help to create healthy and happy brain circuitry.

Meet with a friend, watch a funny movie, listen to uplifting music, ask a friend to accompany you on a short walk outside in nature. Take a social media vacation; when you’re feeling down about yourself, it’s easy to start comparing your life to what you see on social media, and that can make you feel badly about your life and self. Or at least design your news feed so you see only posts that inspire you towards happiness and peace.

Avoid Toxic Relationships

Choose relationships that support the healthiest version of yourself. The quality of connection with the people in your life is as important as healthy food and clean water. Relationships that thrive from bonding over negative experiences or constant complaining are toxic and increase stress. This emotional stress then creates physical stress that your body has to clean up. Surround yourself with people who bring out the best in you and do your best to be that for the people in your life.

Practice Self Compassion

Practice self-compassion and forgiveness for yourself when you’re feeling depressed. It can provide some space around the feelings of sadness, hopelessness and despair, and can be an important tool in shifting your energy from the person who is depressed to the person who is giving unconditional love. Think of someone you love, like a pet, or a child, family member or friend…how would you care for them if they were having the feelings you are feeling? How would you encourage them to take care of herself in a way that supports her highest well-being? Ask yourself what you are needing and wanting in this moment and what might help. Often, we are seeking connection and the feelings of love and belonging.

Nutrition as the Foundation for Health

Avoid foods that will deplete you like fast food, sugar and alcohol. These may bring temporary satisfaction, but are actually like feeding the fire, contributing to inflammation, nutrient deficiencies and stress. Instead, choose unprocessed, whole foods that will provide your body with the nutrients it needs to build a healthy body and happier mood.

Please click here for my Healthy Nutrition Guide!

Using an Integrative Approach Towards SAD

I’m passionate about being able to access a wide variety of therapies that can help the people I work with gain more clarity on the ways they can better access connection, love and belonging in their lives. When a person’s physical body is supported in the unique ways that it needs, emotional well-being is more readily accessed.

During my two-hour initial visit I delve into all the small, but very important details that constitute your depression. I often discover that what is being called “depression,” is really a complex reaction to traumatic events, or it can be due to SAD. Below you’ll see my client, Marie (name changed for privacy), had been dealing with SAD for years. This is how I helped her through it.

Marie’s Story

As is so often the case, Marie (not her real name) was on an anti-depressant when she came to see me. We talked in depth about what was happening in her life at the time she started the anti-depressants. Upon discovering the reasons why she had sought medication, and how she was feeling now, it became apparent how little it was helping.

As we discussed her feelings and symptoms, she began to uncover deep feelings of sadness and a sense of disconnectedness. Through caring inquiry, I helped Marie see the link between these feelings and certain traumatic events in her life.

Marie was the youngest of six children and while her mother was pregnant with her, she experienced a traumatic grief event. When Marie was born, her mother was still in grief and was unavailable to properly mother her. Marie’s siblings helped take care of her as much as they could, but without the presence of a loving, emotionally available mother, she often felt abandoned. Marie felt as if she was “the throw away, extra child” who didn’t matter.

This was especially apparent during the holidays; everyone else received new presents but Marie’s presents consisted of hand-me-downs from her siblings.

We began to notice a seasonal relationship to her depression. As the days grew shorter and the nights grew longer, and the advertisements for the holiday season began, Marie’s feelings of depression intensified. If her “sadness scale” was a 4-5 (out of 10) during the spring and summer months, it increased to an 8-9 starting in October and continuing through March.

An Integrative Medicine Approach to SAD

Through the sharing of Marie’s story, she was better able to understand the root of where her sadness originated. It’s common for the unprocessed emotions of family grief, shame and trauma to get passed on to the next generation. Through the lens of functional medicine, I take into consideration the wholeness of a person, their emotional, physical and spiritual self, and how these things may be contributing to the illness or imbalance in their bodies. With this information, I was able to prescribe a homeopathic remedy specifically suited to Marie’s emotional and physical response to her childhood trauma.

With any kind of depression, including SAD, it’s essential to address imbalances like thyroid or adrenal dysfunction, nutritional deficiencies like vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acid levels, or food allergies and gut imbalances. When the gut, often referred to as “the second brain,” is restored to health, it can do its proper job of breaking down and assimilating the nutrients your body needs to feel good. The health of your entire body is connected, when you heal one part, it impacts your entire being.

You can find several of the supplements just mentioned by clicking here.

After performing lab work-up with Marie, I started her on a functional medicine nutrition and supplement protocol. Using my Healthy Nutrition Guide as the foundation for her nutritional plan, Marie was able to start making the changes to her diet that she needed to support her physical and emotional body to feel better.

I put Marie on specific supplements to augment her energy, brain chemistry and essential fatty acid status. Eating healthy fats is an essential component to healing brain chemistry and underlying symptoms of depression. The quality of fats you eat directly influences how you feel. Essential fatty acids act as critical messengers in the production of neurotransmitters and form the foundation of your hormones, impacting your mood and well-being.

I work collaboratively with many types of professionals, and referred Marie for in-depth therapy. Through careful examination of Marie’s history, supportive diet and lifestyle changes, acupuncture and homeopathic remedies, Marie was able to discontinue her anti-depressant.

If you or someone you love experiences SAD, it’s important for a support network that includes integrative health practitioners, and loved ones such as friends, family and community.

If you are struggling with SAD and want support in finding the cause of your depression, email me to schedule a complimentary 15-minute consultation to see how I can assist you.

It is both my passion and privilege to support women in their wholeness, helping your body to function optimally and address the underlying health issues so that you can reclaim your health and restore your life!

Yours in health,

[1] Lambert GW, Reid C, Kaye DM, Jennings GL, Esler MD. Effect of sunlight and season on serotonin turnover in the brain. Lancet. 2002 Dec 7;360(9348): 1840-2. PubMed PMID: 12480364