Winter is coming. Does that make you feel melancholy or blue? It may be a comfort to know you’re not alone. Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, affects an estimated 10 million Americans.1 If you’re one of them, I have some good news for you! You can take control of the situation with natural means such as Vitamin D.
What is SAD?
Seasonal affective disorder is a type of recurrent major depression that involves episodes of depression during the same season each year. It usually appears during fall or winter, with the most difficult months being January and February, according to the American Psychiatric Association.2 Very rarely, it is associated with spring and summer.
Who is Affected?
This form of depression is four times more common in women than in men. It’s also worse in areas that are farther away from the equator. That’s because in the far northern or southern latitudes — closer to the poles — the winters are usually harsh and long, and there is less sunlight. The lack of sunlight plays an important role in lower serotonin activity, higher melatonin production, and lower levels of Vitamin D.3
SAD usually begins between 18 and 30 years of age, with the average age of onset at 27.4 Many people with SAD report that at least one close relative or a family member has a psychiatric disorder, most often serious depression or alcohol abuse.5
Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms
Not everyone who has SAD has the same experience. However, the most common signs and symptoms of winter-onset SAD include:
- Feelings of hopelessness and sadness; thoughts of death or suicide
- Tendency to oversleep
- A change in appetite, especially a craving for sweet or starchy foods
- Weight gain
- Heaviness in the arms or legs
- Low energy and decreased physical activity
- Difficulty concentrating
- Fear of social rejection and avoidance of social situations
The Causes of SAD
One of the main root causes of SAD is the overproduction of melatonin. Melatonin is a chemical produced by your pineal gland in your brain in response to darkness. It causes sleepiness and lethargy.6 During the day, your pineal is inactive, but when the sun goes down and it gets dark, your pineal gets turned on by an area in your brain called the hypothalamus.
Then it begins to release melatonin into your bloodstream.7 This usually happens around 9 pm, when your melatonin levels will rise sharply and invite you to sleep. They stay high for around 12 hours, until the light of a new day lowers them back down to almost undetectable levels.
People with SAD also have trouble regulating the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is responsible for balancing mood.8 The combination of increased melatonin and decreased serotonin impacts the body’s internal 24-hour biological clock, or circadian rhythms, which are synchronized to respond to changes in light levels. This can make it very difficult to adjust to seasonal changes.
Ninety percent of your serotonin is found in your gut,9 which houses the bacteria that help produce it. In animal studies, researchers have found that 60% less serotonin is produced in the digestive tracts of germ-free animals than animals with robust populations of gut bacteria.10 This may explain why studies have found that several species of gut bacteria are missing in people with depression,11 and that imbalances in gut flora can lead to mood imbalances.
No matter what time of year it is, I strongly advise everyone to take a probiotic supplement to ensure the health of the good bacteria in their gut. My Probiotic 30 Billion has 14 of the most important strains to maintain your gut health. My Probiotic 100 Billion has the same 14 strains in a higher dosage that’s ideal for gut recovery, particularly after a course of antibiotics or when you are under excessive physical or emotional stress.
Low Vitamin D levels have also been found in people with SAD. Those living at around 33 degrees north to 30 degrees south of the equator are not able to synthesize Vitamin D during the winter months of November through February. That includes most of the USA from northern Texas through Maine.12 Regions in the southern latitudes that are affected include the Coquimbo Region of Chile, Córdoba, La Rioja and Catamarca Provinces of Argentina, and the Northern Cape and Free State of South Africa.13
Natural Solutions for SAD
Conventional medicine will likely prescribe antidepressants for those who show signs of SAD.14 Serotonin reuptake inhibitors are often prescribed by doctors to SAD sufferers. These include citalopram, escitalopram, fluoxetine, paroxetine, and sertraline.15 Their side effects include weight gain and loss of sex drive.16
What is the best treatment for SAD without the side effects of harsh medications? Well, the best natural ways to treat SAD are light therapy, talk therapy, and Vitamin D supplementation.
Light therapy boxes mimic outdoor light. They are essentially just a very bright light, and usually provide an exposure of 10,000 lux of light, yet as little UV light as possible. The best time to use a light box is in the morning within the first hour of waking up.17 Infrared light reduced the risk of SAD by 50% compared to no light therapy in a small study, showing the potential of this therapy.18 Even a short exposure to light of just 20 minutes can improve depression scores.19 You can also spend more time outdoors, or if possible, relocate to a different region to increase the amount of light you are exposed to each day.
A small, recent study has shown that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is effective for people with SAD.20 CBT is a common type of talk therapy, or psychotherapy that’s intended to help you become more aware of inaccurate or negative thinking so you can respond to challenging situations in a more effective way.21
Vitamin D is a hormone that’s produced in the skin. When you’re exposed to sunlight, ultraviolet radiation penetrates your epidermis and turns provitamin D3 to previtamin D3.22 You can also get Vitamin D from foods such as fatty fish like mackerel and salmon, beef liver, and egg yolks.23 However, aging and sunscreens can both lower your capacity to produce Vitamin D.24
Vitamin D is needed by every type of tissue in your body without exception, so supplementation can be very beneficial. In fact, 41.6% of American adults are thought to be deficient in Vitamin D.25 The most bioavailable type of Vitamin D is Vitamin D3 (as cholecalciferol). When it is combined with Vitamin K2 as MK7 (menaquinone-7), D3 also helps to support your skeletal and heart health.
And while it may also be useful for supporting immune system function, balanced inflammatory response and a positive mood, the “Vitamin D triage theory” states that it can only support these areas of your well being and each tissue of your body if you have enough. If you are deficient or have suboptimal levels, it only supports the most basic life-supporting functions, such as regulating calcium levels in your bloodstream.
My Vitamin D3/K2 formula comes in an easy-to-take liquid form with a convenient squeeze top dropper, and supplies 1000 IU of super bioavailable Vitamin D per drop. I combined that with 10mcg of Vitamin K2 as MK7 (menaquinone-7) per drop, to ensure your body can absorb all the Vitamin D and receive all of its benefits.
Seek immediate help from a mental health professional if you are having suicidal thoughts. Seasonal affective disorder is a real and challenging condition that shouldn’t be ignored, yet there are natural ways you can take control of SAD and live your optimal life, no matter what the season.