An Integrative Approach to Seasonal Affective Disorder

January 5, 2017
By: Christina Stapke

4 Ways to Combat Mood Imbalances This Winter

Do you or someone you know struggle with poor moods, fatigue, and lethargy during the winter months? About 11 million people in the U.S. suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of recurrent depression that is associated with the seasonal transition into winter with around 25 million people also suffering from a milder form of the “winter blues,” a subtype of SAD.

Possible Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Though the exact cause of SAD is unknown, but a few potential causes include:

  • Disturbance of circadian rhythms (includes overproduction of melatonin)
  • Decreased sensitivity of the retina
  • Dysregulation of neurotransmitters (specifically serotonin)

Integrative Therapies

There are several lifestyle changes that can mitigate the symptoms associated with SAD or the "winter blues" by supporting the body’s circadian rhythm and neurotransmitter regulation.

Bright Light Therapy

Light therapy has been proven to be effective in treating winter-specific Seasonal Affective Disorder and may also be effective in treating non-seasonal depression. Standard light boxes for administering this kind of therapy emit 10,000 lux, where bright midday sun is around 50,000-100,000 lux.

Two separate meta-analyses indicate that bright light therapy can be effective in around 60 percent of people with SAD. It was also found that light therapy was most useful if done earlier in the morning as opposed to later in the day.

Improving Vitamin D Status

Vitamin D deficiency has been associated with depressive symptoms, and is thought to play a role in serotonin activity. When days become shorter, people are naturally exposed to fewer UV rays, which are necessary to convert Vitamin D into its active form in the body.

For those that live in higher latitudes during winter or are generally exposed to less sunlight throughout the year, it is possible for the body to become depleted or deficient of Vitamin D over time.

However, there are a few food sources with naturally occurring Vitamin D:

  • Cod liver oil
  • Fatty fish (swordfish, salmon, tuna, sardines)
  • Beef liver
  • Eggs

For some, eating these foods alone may not be able to restore Vitamin D levels completely. In this case, taking a high-quality supplement at a tailored dosage may be necessary.

Prioritizing Sleep

Getting a good nights rest is important for circadian rhythm entrainment and neurotransmitter regulation, both of which play an important role in regulating mood.

This includes avoiding bright light around 2 hours before sleep (especially blue light from phones, televisions, and computers) as well as getting an adequate amount of sleep, between 7-9 hours per night.  Chronic sleep deprivation can lead to inflammation and dysregulation of neurotransmitters, both of which can exacerbate mood imbalances such as Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Increasing Aerobic Exercise

Exercise supports healthy brain function by increasing blood flow and therefore nutrients to the brain, increasing mood boosting endorphins, and increasing mood regulating neurotransmitters. More specifically, getting an hour of aerobic exercise 2 to 3 times per week has been shown to mitigate symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, or the winter blues.

For some, making these lifestyle changes can help kick the winter blues for good. For others, there may be other underlying sources of inflammation that must be addressed.