I’ve never been formally diagnosed, and in my family, I’m even known as “the one” who loves dark, rainy days. But, as fall approaches and the days grow shorter, I’ve noticed that my energy has begun to lag. I’m having trouble getting out of bed, even to do things I really enjoy. I’ve noticed these feeling before, but this year they seem to be a little stronger and a little heavier. It’s time to take action.
Rather than taking the white knuckle, mind-over-matter approach that I’ve taken in previous years, this year, I decided to do something a little more nurturing, a little more supportive of my optimal health. I’ve decided to solve the actual problem rather than just fighting my symptoms. And, as with most things, I started with research.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression. It is experienced at a particular time of year or during a particular season.
What are the symptoms of SAD?
According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms specific to Winter-onset SAD, sometimes called winter depression, include:
- Tiredness or low energy
- Problems getting along with other people
- Hypersensitivity to rejection
- Heavy, “leaden” feeling in the arms or legs
- Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
- Weight gain
What are the causes of SAD?
The primary contributor to SAD is a change in exposure to natural light. The amount of sunlight available decreases as the seasons change from summer to fall and winter. This is especially true in the more northern latitudes where SAD is most common. But, what is it about the shorter days that trigger these symptoms in some people? The predominant theories focus on these four points:
- Light hitting the back of the eye sends messages to the hypothalamus; the part of the brain that controls sleep, appetite, temperature, mood and activity. In the absence of sufficient light, these messages slow down and in turn, these activities slow down.
- Our internal body clocks may rely on length of daylight hours to determine activity and energy levels, again as the daylight decreases, our activity and energy level decrease as well.
- The amount of light hitting the retina of the eye helps regulate the production of serotonin and melatonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter responsible for our sense of well-being. It’s our all-natural feel-good drug. Melatonin is a hormone that greatly influences sleep patterns and may even affect sleep’s restorative benefits.
- Decreased sunlight, results in decreased production of Vitamin D, which is actually a hormone. Vitamin D is also believed to play a role in serotonin production. Several studies have shown a relationship between lower Vitamin D levels and increased rate of SAD, and depression in general.
What are the treatments for SAD?
Current medical treatment for SAD includes, light therapy, psychotherapy (talk therapy), pharmaceutical therapy and Vitamin D therapy. Light therapy and vitamin D therapy are unique, in that they are low cost and low risk. They are also both easily accessible therapies that individuals can implement on their own, at home. The information presented to this point, is generally well supported by research and accepted across the medical community. What follows includes my own personal experience, with both light therapy and vitamin D therapy.
What is Light Therapy?
Light therapy involves exposure to a light box, or specialized lamp that provides a specific amount of broad spectrum light. This type of light is similar to what a user would experience standing outside on a clear spring day, minus the UV portion of the spectrum. The “strength” of a light box is measured in lux units. A good quality light box emits 10,000 lux. This is about 20 times the strength of typical household lighting.
According to this article, published in Psychiatry, 60-80% of SAD sufferers benefit from light therapy.
Always follow the instructions provided with your specific light box. For a typical light therapy session, simply sit with the light at a distance of 18-20” and slightly off to an angle. You don’t want to be looking directly into the light, but rather have it shining on you and in your field of view. Begin with 10 minutes and build up to 30 minutes or more. Depending on your body’s response, you may want another brief session in the afternoon.
Making time for Light Therapy
Light therapy has become part of my morning routine. I use the time to journal, read, or sip my tea and plan my day. I wake up looking forward to my light therapy sessions and love the efficiency of combining it with other activities I enjoy. For me, the benefits came very quickly. After a couple of days I could feel a difference in my energy level and my ability to wake up before the alarm. The biggest improvement was that I actually wanted to get out of bed in spite of the darkness.
Some research shows that it can take two to four weeks to experience the benefits. Even that is a relatively short period of time to achieve significant results. Another bonus: most mornings my husband joins me. He has also noticed a difference in his mood and energy after using the light.
The prices of light boxes vary, and 10,000 lux lamps will run from $75 to $300 for portable units. I use this one every morning. And yes, the name sounds a bit corny, but in my experience, it’s true! I like the size, because I travel with it and I like the interchangeable lenses that allow new users to ease into light therapy. Here is a smaller version that is even more portable and can be used throughout the day.
Sunlight and Vitamin D
As the weather cools, here in Minnesota, I know that I will not have the opportunity to enjoy as much time out in the sun with my skin exposed. And even if I choose to brave the cold, the sun this far north is pretty weak for much of the winter. So vitamin D therapy is important to me and my family, for a host of reasons. Learning that lower levels of vitamin D may play a role in SAD and other forms of depression just reinforced my decision to maintain a vitamin D protocol.
What is a Vitamin D Protocol?
Besides the obvious, taking supplemental vitamin D, the protocol includes taking supplements in a that the body can actually absorb and use the vitamin D. First, the form: Vitamin D3 is preferable to vitamin D2 because D3 is the form that the body most readily uses. It is critical to take Vitamin d supplements with dietary fat so that the body can absorb the D3 rather than simply excreting it through the digestive process. Individual who follow a low fat diet are frequently deficient in vitamin D as well as other fat soluble vitamins.
Vitamin D3 is also better utilized by the body, when taken with vitamin K2. While vitamin D3 assists calcium absorption, vitamin K2 guides the calcium to into the bones rather than having it absorbed into organs, joint spaces or arteries. The function of these two vitamins is complex, but supplementing doesn’t have to be. I use this one. It combines the two vitamins in a useful ratio. Its dropper dispenser makes it simple to adjust dosage and the peppermint oil makes it pleasant to take.
Where to go from here:
Check out the links found within this article. As always, form your own opinions. Decide what fits with your optimal health program. If you have any questions about the above information, or would like to share your experience with either of these therapies, I would love to hear from you. And, although I did not discuss the other two common treatments for SAD, please note that any type of depression should be taken seriously, and readers who are, in any way, contemplating seeking medical help should do so.