Natural Ways to Treat Seasonal Affective DisorderElisabeth Christopoulos, B.Sc., D.H.M.H.S. February 1, 2015
Have you noticed a change in your mood during the winter months? Do you sometimes feel disconnected and unable to carry on with your day-to-day activities during the long dark days of winter? You may be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder. Also commonly known as S.A.D., this condition is known to afflict individuals starting in the fall season, when we start to experience a decrease in the amount of daylight hours, and lasting throughout the winter season.
Seasonal depression is more common in countries situated in the higher latitudes, like Canada and Scandinavia, where there are fewers hours of sunlight in winter. Mild forms of S.A.D. are known as ‘winter blues’; more severe forms may be associated with Bipolar Disorder and major depression.
Seasonal Affective Disorder was officially recognized in the 1987 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Approximately 2–3% of Canadians will experience S.A.D. in their lifetime and about 15% will experience a milder form of S.A.D. that leaves them feeling only slightly depressed. Women are more likely to experience S.A.D. than men, and the disorder tends to run in families that have at least one other family member suffering with depression.
The symptoms of S.A.D. are similar to depression, the major difference being that S.A.D. is triggered by a decrease in daylight hours. Individuals affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder experience difficulty going about their daily activities, a feeling of being incapacited, and a general decline in productivity levels. Other symptoms associated with S.A.D. include: oversleeping (2–4 hours or more per day), low energy, intense cravings for carbohydrates, weight gain, withdrawal from social gatherings, and a depressed mood occuring over two consecutive winters, alternating with non-depressed mood in the Spring and Summer months.
What’s the biochemistry behind S.A.D.? The compound melatonin, produced in the brain, helps to induce sleep. An excess of melatonin in the brain is one thing that may trigger Seasonal Affective Disorder. When light hits the retina of the eye, it triggers the pineal gland in the brain to stop producing melatonin. However, the decrease of daylight hours can leave an excess of melatonin in the brain, which can contribute to fatigue, drowsiness, and a general feeling of depression.
Vitamin D Deficiency Contributes to SAD
Reachers have discovered that low levels of Vitamin D can contribute to depression and, in particular, to Seasonal Affective Disorder. They note that vitamin D levels fluctuate in our bodies in response to the change of seasons and the amount of sunlight we are exposed to.
Micheal Kimlin of Queensland University of Technology in Australia co-authored an article titled: ‘Possible Contributions of Skin Pigmentation and Vitamin D in a Polyfactoral Model of Seasonal Affective Disorder' which was published in the Medical Hypothesis Journal. In it, he stated that vitamin D plays a part in the synthesis of dopamine and serotonin, noting that low levels of these neurotransmitters play a significant role in depression. Studies have shown that individuals suffering from depression, including S.A.D., have lower blood levels of vitamin D.
Therapeutic doses of vitamin D can range from 1500 to 2800 IU daily, for several months. It is important to consult with your health care practitioner when taking vitamin D to ensure proper dosage and frequency of treatment.
How Can Homeopathy Help?
A Homeopath considers the physical, mental, and emotional health of a patient when making a treatment assessment. This indivualized attention is of vital importance when choosing the remedy that will best maximize the body’s inherent self-healing capacity.
The practitioner focuses on how that person manifests symptoms of any disease that is caused by an imbalance. Since no two people will experience Seasonal Affective Disorder in exactly the same way, this individualized approach is what makes Homeopathy both unique and effective. Additionally, the focus is on restoring health to the person as a whole on all levels – mental, physical, and emotional.
A Case of “Winter Makes Me Sad”
Homeopathic remedies can be used to help alleviate the symptoms of depression caused by Seasonal Affective Disorder. In one case, a young woman in her 30’s came to my office and stated at the outset:“I hate winter, it makes me sad.” Of course, with an opening line like that, it quickly became clear during our consultation that this was a case of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Carol told the story of feeling depressed during the first winter after she had suffered the frightening experience of being robbed. Asked how she feels in her body when the depression hits, she stated, “It’s as if all my nerves are raw; there are shooting sharp pains in my abdomen and hands.” These were the areas on her body that had been hurt during the attack, but which had long since healed.
By the time Carol came to see me, it was her second winter of feeling depressed and experiencing great difficulty carrying out her day-to-day activities. During the consultation, I noticed she would often make mistakes in speaking – using the wrong words or mixing up her words. She complained of a weak memory, and of forgetting what she wanted to say. Carol’s physical complaints, related to nerve pain in her hands, were aggravated during episodes of depression in the darkest winter months of December and January. After a careful analysis of her case, and taking into consideration all of Carol’s symptoms, I prescribed the homeopathic remedy Hypericum.
After two months of taking Hypericum there was a marked improvement in Carol’s mood and energy levels, and the sharp pains in her abdomen and hands had totally disappeared. I saw Carol again in December 2014 and I’m happy to report that, to date, she has not had any serious depressed episodes such as those she experienced over the previous two winters.
A Case of “The Black Hole”
I recently did a case-taking with Tom, who visited my office with two chief complaints. The first was that he felt “trapped in a black hole of darkness”; the second was that he was drinking excessively. Upon further investigation and discussion, it emerged that this feeling of being “trapped” which Tom was experiencing had started in November and continued until March, at which time his symptoms seemed to lessen over the summer months. In the course of consultation Tom stated, “There is gloom and darkness all winter long. I just can’t function. It’s as if there is a weight bearing down on me, so heavy, just moving my body takes every ounce of energy.” Tom avoided friends and family during these phases of depression and despair. At the same time, he would engage in excessive drinking to the point of passing out. The interesting thing about Tom’s drinking is that it was most severe during his Seasonal Depression episodes. As well, Tom’s physical complaints included severe stomach pains, lethargy, chronic fatigue, and weight gain.
After taking into account all of Tom's symptoms, I prescibed homeopathic Thiosinominum 200 CH. After two repeat visits and one dose of Thiosinominum, Tom reported feeling lighter and exclaimed that he was looking forward to meeting with his friends for a weekend of skiing. He reduced his alcohol consumption and his stomach pains disappeared.
Overall, there was an improvement in Tom’s case on all levels – mental, emotional, and physical.
One of the best tools to relieve the symptoms of S.A.D. is phototherapy (light therapy). People report feeling better after one week of using light therapy. Natural sunlight helps to regulate the body’s circadian rhythm, which in turn governs hormone production (melatonin). It’s important to continue with phototherapy daily from October until April, as the therapeutic effects of phototherapy are not long-lasting.
In conclusion, there are a number of things you can do to help relieve the symptoms of S.A.D. Get out and enjoy the natural sunlight by taking a walk; just 60 minutes a day can do wonders for a depressed mood. Make your home environment brighter by adding some colour to the decor. Open the drapes to allow the natural light into your home or office, and sit by the window whenever you can. Exercising regularly can make you feel better about yourself, and increase your energy levels.
The sources for this article appear in the same sequence in which they were referenced in the narrative
1) Frances, Allen M.D., First, Michael B. M.D. (1998). Your Mental Health. New York, NY: Scribner
2) Hammerly, Milton M.D. (2000). Depression, How to Combine the Best of Traditional Therapies. New York, NY: Adams Media Corp.
3) Whiteman, Honor (2014). Researchers Link Vitamin D Deficiency to Seasonal Affective Disorder. Medical News Today. Medilexicon. Intl., 7 Dec. 2014. http://tinyurl.com/m4w37ao
4) Reference made to Research Study, Possible Contributions of Skin Pigmentation and Vitamin D in a Polyfactorial model of Seasonal Affective Disorder, Alan Stewart et al., Medical Hypothesis, published online 18 September 2014, abstract