Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern. This type of depression tends to affect people who live in northern countries farther from the equator, is most common during the winter months and tends to resolve in springtime. Five percent of people in the United States are affected—although up to twenty percent of people with preexisting depression, and twenty-five percent of people with bipolar, are also thought to suffer from it. Symptoms may include increased irritability, excessive or disrupted sleep, consistently low mood, increased sugar cravings, reduced concentration, lack of motivation, reduced libido, and feelings of fatigue even after a full night’s sleep.
What are some underlying causes of this condition? Not surprisingly, some studies have linked Seasonal Affective Disorder to changes in brain chemistry related to light exposure and its effect on the retina. Many people who suffer from SAD seem to have retinal sensitivity anomalies, including lower rod sensitivity. In one study, these changes normalized following four weeks of light therapy. It is therefore recommended to get outside in the sunlight (without eyeglasses, so there is exposure to the retina) for at least fifteen minutes a day during the winter months.
Other likely contributors include adrenal and melatonin dysregulation. Adrenal dysregulation is most often brought on by long-term stress which leads to a disruption in the stress-regulating hormone cortisol. A common modern-day affliction, chronically elevated cortisol levels have been linked to low levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factors (or BDNF) which many studies have connected with depression.
Together with melatonin, cortisol regulates our circadian rhythms and can profoundly affect both our sleep and seasonal cycles. Disruptions in cortisol levels during the day lead to problems with melatonin release at night, and since melatonin also plays a role in promoting calm and relaxation, even minor long-term disruptions can lead to mood and sleep changes.
The “sunshine vitamin”, vitamin D, is involved in the production and release of both serotonin and melatonin, which amplifies the importance of keeping our vitamin D levels optimized during the winter months. Serotonin is a major neurotransmitter that powerfully influences mood. People living in northern Europe wisely supplemented for centuries during the long dark winter months with vitamin D-rich fermented cod liver oil.
Acupuncture has been shown repeatedly in studies to have a highly supportive effect on mood. A German study in 2000 looked at forty-three people with depression and found that over sixty percent improved following ten sessions over a three-week period. In a meta-analysis over 207 clinical studies revealed that acupuncture was superior to antidepressants in improving symptom severity, and without the negative side effects. Acupuncture also offers clear benefit in recovering hormonal balance, benefitting both adrenal and melatonin function.
At Vital Health, we understand that mood disorders can be complex, and can require some detective work to resolve. We utilize a variety of tools, including targeted nutrition, dietary supplements, and acupuncture to restore you to a state of health and happiness.
©2022 Darcy Greenwald, M.S.O.M., L.Ac. and Vital Health