At one time, mankind didn’t need alarm clocks. The human life cycle was based on planting and harvesting seasons, and the body cycle was based on tending to survival needs. “Up with the chickens” was a normal alarm clock – You would arise when there was light, and ready for sleep when the sun went down. This allowed people to have good use of proper daylight, and proper rest. Light influences everything on earth, just as the tides affect the salt and water on the earth. Light also influences behaviors that are necessary for quality of life, synchronization of the circadian clock (the body’s rhythm) to the solar day, tracking seasonal changes, and regulation of sleep as well as the release of certain processes and chemicals in the body, particularly hormones that are needed for a significant number of subsequent processes. Irregular light, through inconsistent schedules, artificial light in the environment, travel and bad sleep patterns can directly affect moon and learning. Light definitely influences mood and cognitive functions.

Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is actually a depression that appears with changes in the season. Most people have symptoms that start in the Fall, continue through Winter, and often disappears in Spring. It can zap energy and make you feel moody. This usually happens due to a lack of light – the number of hours there is natural light declines in the Winter, and people do not work or play out of doors as much during this time of year. In addition, geographical area can have something to do with it – the further ‘North’ you live, the less light there will be. Not only can the reduced amount of natural light disrupt your body’s internal clock, but reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain, which triggers depression. It can also disrupt the body’s level of melatonin which plays a role in both sleep patterns and mood.

In some cases, SAD can lead to, or mask Major Depression. It can also be misdiagnosed as Major Depression. Clinical symptoms of Major Depression include:
Feeling Depressed nearly every day for most of the day
Feeling hopeless, or worthless
Low Energy
Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
Sleep problems
Changes in appetite or fluctuating weight
Feeling agitated
Difficulty Concentrating
Frequent though of death or suicide

Symptoms of winter-onset SAD may include:
Tiredness, low energy
Difficulty getting along with people
Hypersensitivity (to rejection, particularly)
Arms and legs feel ‘heavy’
Craving foods high in carbohydrates
Weight gain

In cases with clients who have Bi-Polar Disorder, Spring or Summer can bring on symptoms of mania, while Fall and Winter brings on depression.
Several factors increase risks of SAD, which include:

Age – younger people have higher incidents of SAD
Sex – females are diagnosed more often in women; although, men may have more severe forms
Pre-existing Depression or Bi-polar Disorder – Normal symptoms experienced by these patients/client are exacerbated during winter months
Family history – People who experience SAD often have a family history of SAD or other forms of depression.
Geographical area – SAD is more common further away from the equator due to decreased sunlight and the length of days

The complications experienced with SAD include suicidal thoughts or behavior, social withdrawal, school or work problems and substance abuse.
One of the most effective ways to treat SAD is to make an effort to keep your mood and level of motivation consistent throughout the whole year. This can be achieved through a combination of diet, phototherapy (light therapy), psychotherapy and medications or supplements.

A properly balanced diet is extremely important for anybody, particularly people with health challenges. Diet should be tailored to address medical issues, and to assist the body in healing, and to help the body work with prescribed medications – NOT to make the body work harder and cause the body to fight medications. While the recommendations below are generally specific for SAD, you should always work with a holistic nutrition or other practitioner/professional to make sure that your health issues are not contraindicative of these foods or supplements.

Although carbohydrates are generally minimized in healthy diets, there is a small quantity of carbs required by anybody. With SAD, snacking on the right kinds of carbs can help alleviate symptoms of SAD. Approximately 30 grams of carbs are enough to make the serotonin that is needed. However, the form of carbs is very important. If you eat simple carbs, like those contained in foods like doughnuts, white rice and white bread, quickly raise blood sugar levels which triggers a spike in insulin. This, in turn, quickly causes all the blood sugar to be rapidly metabolized. This is a sudden drop in blood sugar – a “crash” which is hard on the body and other processes. It is important that you eat carbohydrates that have little fat and low protein, which not only stabilizes blood sugar, but ensures serotonin production. Good carb choices that are SAD-friendly, are popcorn, pretzels, shredded wheat squares or even low-fat biscotti. It is a good idea to plan dinner to be your main carbohydrate-containing meal. Reason? Evening is the time of day that symptoms of SAD are at their strongest. Carbs such as lentils and brown rice may help fight the urge to binge on unhealthy carbs.

Lean proteins are another important part of a SAD-friendly diet. Besides being high in omega-3’s, salmon is a perfect choice. Lean proteins contain plenty of amino acids, which can positively affect your mood and are a great source of energy. Avoid rich marbly steaks, as hard as it might be.
Speaking of Omega-3’s, which are a general nutritional and supplement recommendation for people suffering from SAD, they are also important for those who suffer from depression in general. The highest levels of omega-3’s can be found in flax seeds, walnuts and salmon.

As stress aggravates the symptoms of depression, berries can be very helpful in a SAD-friendly diet. Berries such as raspberries,blueberries and strawberries may help prevent the release of cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal gland that targets the hippocampus.

Limit sugar intake.
Watch for the ‘ose’! Everything listed in ingredients that ends in ‘ose’ is a sugar. So is sugar itself, obviously. So is syrup. Although sugar can temporarily make you feel giddy and happy, and just as with carbohydrates, you quickly have a sugar crash. Watch sugar. Refined sugar and all of the ‘ose’ are not recommended for anyone.

Folic Acid
Folic acid is used by the body to create serotonin. You can find this nutrient in leafy greens, oatmeal, sunflower seeds, oranges, lentils, black-eyed peas and soybeans, leaving you a huge array of options for recipes.

Vitamin B-12
This important vitamin has been shown to be associated with depression when deficient. Besides Vitamin B-12 supplementation, food sources of B-12 include lean beef, clams, oysters, crab, wild salmon, eggs, cottage cheese, yogurt and milk.

Although Vitamin D is generally synthesized by the body from sunlight, we are of course concerned about the lack of sunlight when dealing with SAD. Supplementation, after testing, is the best plan for getting additional D. D-3 is the best choice. However, you can get minimal amounts of D through diet in egg yolks and fish that have bones, as well as certain mushrooms that are grown to supplement D (which is actually a hormone).

Turkey contains small amounts of melatonin. It also contains the amino acid tryptophan, which is calming (and is also responsible for that falling-asleep feeling after Thanksgiving dinner!)

Bananas also contain tryptophan, but also contain healthy carbohydrates, natural sugars and potassium which help fuel the brain. They also contain magnesiu, which may improve sleep and reduce anxiety – important in treating SAD.

Light Therapy
Depending on the severity of your SAD, light therapy can consist of many different levels of treatment. Some people find relief by taking walks on a bright morning, while others find relief in moving living and family room arrangements to a sunny side of the house –perhaps a sunroom, etc. Some people use special lights in which the instructions need to be heeded. Depending on the size of the light and the strength of the bulb, users need to expose them to the light for certain amounts of time. Others program lights to turn on in their sleeping quarters at dawn and turn lights down when the sun goes down to trick their body into a normal circadian rhythm. The best therapy is to expose yourself to bright light in the morning, for at least half an hour. As everyone’s chemistry is different, it often takes a trial and error approach to see what works best for you.

One of the most effective supplements for treating SAD is Melatonin. Melatonin, although an over-the-counter supplement (in the United States), is a hormone produced naturally in the body in the Pineal Gland (located in the brain). The Pineal Gland receives information from the optic nerve about the light level, and adjusts melatonin output accordingly Bright light actually suppresses the output of melatonin, while ordinary inddor lighting does not. After sunset, the Pineal Gland responds to the decreased light levels reach a point where sleep in induced. The Melatonin blood levels reach a point where sleep in induced, and the levels usually peak two to four hours after the onset of sleep, and decrease gradually during the remaining period of sleep. Daylight inhibits production of Melatonin, and the levels usually reach a minimum sometime during the afternoon. Melatonin, used in conjunction with light therapy, can help reset a person’s body clock to normal. Timing of the dosage can be tricky. Approximately 30% of patients/clients respond best with taking the Melatonin in the morning instead of the afternoon, which works for some patients/clients. The standard dose for SAD, however, is two milligrams of sustained-release melatonin taken orally 1-2 hours nightly for three weeks. If you are using sublingual Melatonin, a dose of 0.5 milligrams should be taken for 6 days. A holistic nutritionist can help you also add foods to your diet which supplement Melatonin, as a small amount is obtained through diet. Melatonin is important in many conditions, is not an additional supplement, but a hormone your body makes and sometimes is either deficient, or not made at the right time of the day to keep a modern, altered scheduled that is not in tune with the natural light in its environment.
Although other supplements can be useful in SAD, such as St. John’s Wort, SAM-e and Omega-3 fatty acids, Mrs. Baker recommends trying Melatonin first along with light therapy and nutritional changes. Some of these other supplements are easily obtainable as part of a diet, Melatonin is only minimally available through diet. Other nutrients are very important, but most can be obtained through diet (see above section).

Whether you suffer from SAD or not, in the winter it is extremely important to watch your Vitamin D levels. Since Vitamin D, actually a hormone, is synthesized by the body and not found in many foods at all, it is important to get a little sunlight each day. Have your levels checked, and supplement if necessary. A physician or other practitioner or a holistic nutritionist can assist you in Vitamin D intake.

Psychotherapy and Medication
Medications such as Prozac and Zoloft (among others) are often used in treating SAD, and psychotherapy can be an enlightening and important part of the treatment, too.

If you are feeling depressed and down and can’t get motivated to do the activities you love, consult with a physician or a professional trained to work with you on psychotherapy, nutrition, or energy healing. As always, if you have feelings and thoughts of violence or suicidal ideation, seek immediate help. The National Suicide Prevention Line is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK

Author's Bio: 

Lisa C. Baker, CNC, RNHP, is a certified Nutritional Counselor, and also holds a certificate in Complementary and Integrative Health. She is a member of the American Nutritional Association, the International Association of Natural Health Practitioners, International Institute for Complementary Therapists, and is a Registered Natural Health Practitioner by the IANHP.

Mrs. Baker is a musician and recording artist, a mother of one, and resides in Muskogee, Oklahoma with her husband and their kitties.