"We are born to be fit, strong, and healthy." Robb Wolf

December 17, 2010

Seasonal Affective Disorder

SAD is a form of depression that is related to the change in seasons. It is usually seen during the winter months. The symptoms tend to recur and present themselves around the same time every year. Things that wouldn’t get to us during the summer months have a bigger impact during the winter months. Researches believe that with the lack of sunlight during the winter months, that we as Canadians experience, disrupts the Circadian rhythm, which, in turn, causes hormonal imbalances.

It has been found that there is an imbalance between two neurotransmitters (NTs) in the brain – melatonin and serotonin. These NTs are secreted by the pineal gland in the brain. The pineal gland is sensitive to light. The darker the environment is, the more melatonin is produced. (Hmmm… maybe that’s why I would fall asleep during overhead projector lectures in high school.)

When the levels of melatonin increase, symptoms of depression, fatigue, and anxiety arise. During the winter months we have shorter days and longer nights. An interesting note: the reason why you feel tired after eating turkey is that turkey contains an abundance of the amino acid tryptophan. Serotonin is derived from tryptophan. Therefore, if you are eating turkey at dinner during the winter, more serotonin is being produced which is converted to melatonin due to the decreased natural light.

During the winter months, the levels of serotonin decrease. Serotonin helps bring about calmness, feeling of well-being, and decreased levels of stress and/or anxiety. People suffering from SAD tend to eat a little more than normal because the craving for carbohydrates increases. Carbohydrates help increase the level of serotonin. As a result, the sadness and fatigued experienced is alleviated. And we all have a basic understanding of simple- or complex-carbohydrates. If not, check out this article.

Symptoms of SAD

-       change in sleep patterns (waking in the morning not feeling refreshed)
-       extreme fatigue
-       increased appetite (especially towards carbohydrates)
-       weight gain
-       inability to concentrate
-       decreased libido
-       withdrawal from family and friends
-       feelings of depression (sad all the time), anxiety, and irritability
-       lack emotion
-       joint pain and stomach discomfort
-       PMS that gets worse over winter months

Treatment For SAD

Light therapy, exercise, and good nutrition help curb the symptoms of SAD. But if a severe case of SAD is present, antidepressants may be required.

Light therapy requires a specific type of white light. It should be at least 25 times as bright as a normal living room light. It is recommended that a person sit by the light box for approximately 30 minutes each morning. The light is supposed to mimic the brightness of the sun and its suppressive effects on melatonin.

Exercise helps increase the body’s production of endorphins. Endorphins help relieve the effects of depression. It has been shown that exercise helps alleviate mental stress by increasing blood flow to the brain. This, combined with adequate light can minimize the effects of SAD.

Good food!!! Not only is it critical to help control the symptoms of SAD but also vital for overall health. Winter is the time of year that a lot of people like to huddle up inside with a cup of hot chocolate with marshmallows floating on top. Mmmm… I know I used to love that. But it is very important to focus on the quality of food that you consume. Focusing on organic or local foods is key.

Taking supplements is critical as well. These supplements include, but not limited to, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, B vitamins

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Studies have shown that individuals suffering from SAD have decreased levels of omega-3 fatty acids. These fatty acids are essential for good brain function. They have a role in the synthesis of serotonin (the feel good hormone).

Cytokines are pro-inflammatory proteins that are released by cells. They cause a greater production of enzymes that deplete tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin, in the blood, resulting in serotonin deficiency in the brain. Having higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids helps minimize inflammation in the body.

Vitamin D

It has been found that low levels of vitamin D correlate with higher incidences of SAD. *Just a side note, vitamin D is not actually a vitamin, its active form is a steroid hormone.* Vitamin D is required for the production and activation of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine (all mood elevators).

The body naturally converts certain UVB rays from the sun into vitamin D3. This is the most active form of vitamin D and can be found in oily fish and animal products.

The recommended daily intake of vitamin D is a measly 400IU per day. Many studies have shown that the body can tolerate between 7000-10000IU per day without experiencing toxic effects. Now that winter is upon us, I have tripled what I take during the spring – autumn months. I take 3000IU per day and feel great. The dosage varies from person to person. Definitely start at the lower end of the spectrum and if you don’t feel any different after a couple of days take more. Try it as a week-by-week basis.

Vitamin D is available at any health food store, Shoppers Drugmart, or major grocery store.

B Vitamins

Essential B vitamins include thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6 & B12, and pantothenic acid. A study done by Finnish researchers found that vitamins B6 and B12 affect and regulate your mood. And that vitamin B12 helps reduce depression. It has been found that vitamins B6 & B12 promote the production of another NT known as dopamine. Dopamine has many functions in the human body. One being that is provides feelings of enjoyment and pleasure. It also reinforces a person to be more motivated.

Food sources of vitamins B6 & B12 are fish, meat, chicken, milk, eggs, and fortified cereals. If you are a vegetarian, it is highly recommended that you take a supplement. It is probably a good idea to supplement your B vitamins regardless. Most common dosages are 50mg and 100mg per day. Whatever the body doesn’t use is excreted in the urine. So you may experience a bright to fluorescent yellow pee.