Natural Therapies for Seasonal Affective Disorder

Image for Natural Therapies for Seasonal Affective Disorder

by Rich Keller

Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as SAD, is a form of depression that occurs in five percent of the U.S. population. In most cases, SAD begins in the colder, shorter days of fall and continues through early spring. Those afflicted have symptoms similar to those of clinical depression: diminished energy, increased appetite, fatigue, physical agitation and a general feeling of unhappiness.

Prescribed treatment for SAD is usually antidepressant medications along with the artificial sunlight therapy known as phototherapy. Though these may assist during the peak period of the disorder, they are temporary solutions to a chronic problem. To help ease the symptoms of SAD, and to increase health and wellbeing throughout the year, a number of natural solutions can be applied.

Exposure to sunlight is one solution. A common trigger for winter-onset SAD is the lack of sunlight an individual receives. In some parts of the country, the reduction in sunny days from December until March reduces the amount of natural Vitamin D a body produces. If not supplemented, this can cause more frequent occurrences of the disorder.

Luckily, Northern Colorado is blessed with abundant amounts of sunshine even during the coldest periods. Getting more sunlight doesn’t mean stepping out in shirtsleeves and shorts when it’s 10 degrees. Only a few minutes of daily direct sunlight on an individual’s face can ease the severity of SAD symptoms. If it’s too cold to expose any skin outdoors, sitting in a sunlight-drenched area of a home also works. Just make sure sunlight comes in direct contact to generate the production of natural Vitamin D.

Yoga is another helper in the battle with SAD. Studies have shown this discipline assists to increase levels of serotonin, a natural chemical within the body which generates a sense of happiness and wellbeing. Other studies have shown the increase of serotonin can control the body’s levels of melatonin, allowing for a more regulated sleep cycle as the days get shorter during the winter months.

While not an immediate fix, regular yoga exercises can counteract the affects of SAD within a few weeks. A routine that combines breathing techniques, meditation in direct sunlight and restorative yoga, the practice of deep and aware relaxation, is recommended to generate the body’s natural depression-fighters and stabilize internal clocks with the calendar. If new to yoga, consultation with a yoga instructor may be necessary to find the right set of postures and techniques.

Dietary changes can also aid in reducing symptoms related to SAD. As an increased appetite is associated with this disorder, a balance of complex carbohydrates and proteins are recommended to not only help create and transport serotonin through the blood stream, but also to maintain energy levels and curb urges for fatty and sugary comfort foods. Preparation should emphasize simple and light meals containing whole grains such as quinoa, lean meats, root vegetables, beans and legumes, and soy-based products like tofu. Instead of using refined sugars, which has been connected with some forms of depression, desserts can be created with natural sweeteners like agave nectar. Combined, these changes work to satisfy hunger as well as provide the necessary vitamins and minerals to boost well-being throughout the year.

Finally, consider the natural antidepressant medications on the market. The most commonly known of these is St. John’s Wort. Though not a federally-approved drug, studies have shown this yellow-flowering plant, available in tablets, capsules, teas and liquid extracts, can assist in alleviating mild forms of depression like SAD. There are some side-effects to taking St. John's Wort as well as negative interactions with other prescription medicines. Therefore, consultation with a medical professional may be needed before taking this natural remedy in any of its forms.

Richard Keller is a freelance writer who moved his family to Northern Colorado to avoid the cloudy and cold days of the East Coast. More information on the author can be found at www. richardskeller.com.

References National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, “St. John's Wort.” www.nccam.nih.gov/health/stjohnswort/

Partonen, T., “Dopamine and circadian rhythms in seasonal affective disorder.” Medical Hypotheses Vol 47, Issue 3:191-912

U.S. National Library of Medicine, “Seasonal Affective Disorder.” www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002499//PMH0002499/