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What is SAD (typical and atypical)
What symptoms would people notice if they struggle with it?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a combination of biologic and mood disturbances that occur with a seasonal pattern; typically occurring in the autumn and winter, with remission in the spring or summer. Although the condition is seasonally limited, people effected by SAD experience significant impairment from these seasonal changes. SAD primarily presents as depressed mood with symptoms like having low energy, difficulty sleeping/hypersomnia, losing interest in activities and socialization, difficulty with concentration and changes in appetite. It can also show up differently in people with other mental health concerns – like hypomania in the spring/summer in people with bipolar tendencies, or summer depression with winter hypomania.

How common is it? 
And what have studies found leads to experiencing symptoms of SAD?

SAD has a prevalence of 1.5-20%, depending on your latitude from the equator and may be associated with low vitamin D levels. Studies have also examined the relationship between suppressed cortisol excretion, disrupted cortisol awakening response (CAR), imbalance of neurotransmitters (like serotonin and melatonin), and have noted that it is more common in those who experience mood variability throughout the year. In Canada, youth and teens (12-24) display symptoms of low mood and low energy, while adults tend to display symptoms related to sleep and appetite disturbance. Summer SAD may be associated with high airborne pollen days, as some studies have made this connection with an exacerbation of depression and seasonal variability.

So as a naturopathic doctor how would you go about helping someone to feel better?

With so many factors at play, it is important to figure out how the seasons are affecting you so that we can properly treat and address your concerns. This means treating the underlying root cause and supporting the body as it needs to be. While this looks different for everyone, things we would be considering include:

  • digestive function, immune function, and the make up of your microbiome
  • nutrient deficiencies like B vitamins, vitamin D, Omega 3 Fatty Acids and dietary patterns that support appropriate neurotransmitter and catecholamine production
  • treating any underlying mental health concerns with things like natural health products, herbal medicine, acupuncture, and therapy
  • address any underlying conditions that may be contributing to the problem (eg. hypothyroidism, hormone imbalances, chronic pain, chronic fatigue syndrome, adrenal insufficiency, chronic viral infections etc)

And what if someone isn’t able to afford coming to see a ND either in time or money? What are some thing people can do at home.
Things you can do at home to help improve the outcomes of your Seasonal Affective Disorder are effective, fairly simple to maintain, and can be used as prophylaxis before the subsequent autumn/winter seasons. 

  • Health Basics: Review the foundations of health and notice where you can make adjustments in your everyday choices – Are you eating well? Sleeping well? Managing your stress? Are you moving enough? Are your thought patterns more positive or negative? What are you doing for self care? Are you making time for things that bring you joy?
  • Journalling: Journalling addresses the basics of Wellness from other dimensions of health. If you’re feeling low or hopeless, try writing out how you feel and why – journalling can provide insight into the problems we may be ignoring. A simple assessment to get you started can be done by completing a wellness wheel evaluation. It’s important to figure out if it’s a physiological issue, or if there's something else going on. 
  • SAD Lamps: For 30 years, light therapy has been a first line treatment for SAD. Studies have shown that using a lamp with 2,500lux (2 hours daily in the morning) – 10,000lux (30 minutes daily in the morning) shows clinical improvement in depressive symptoms within 1-2 weeks of use, and improves vitamin D levels after 1 month. To avoid relapse, light therapy should continue daily through the end of the winter season until spontaneous remission of symptoms in the spring. Light therapy is generally well tolerated, with limited and mild side effects like agitation and hypomania, which appear to remit with limiting use.

If you’ve been struggling with seasonal mood changes, it may be time to try something new. Go through the at-home basics and if you’re still feeling stuck or wanting more direction – its always okay to ask for help.

Connect with me on social media (instagram, facebook) for more general health and wellness education, or send me an email if you have any questions about how Naturopathic Medicine could help you.

PMID: 31600678, 21156993, 31826657, 31631951, 31630036

Disclaimer: Information is for educational purposes and does not substitute professional medical advice. Please consult your Naturopathic Doctor, Medical Doctor or Pharmacist before starting any new supplements to make sure it’s the right fit for you.