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Seasonal affective disorder or just wintertime blahs? Alternative health methods can help!

Fun in the sun
Fun in the sun
Elaine Hiatt

Conservative estimates put those affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) at half a million Americans.Symptoms of SAD can include:

  • increased appetite and carbohydrate cravings;
  • weight gain;
  • a drop in energy level;
  • fatigue;
  • difficulty concentrating;
  • irritability and anxiety;
  • increased sensitivity to social rejection;
  • low libido;
  • avoidance of social situations and a loss of interest in the activities you used to enjoy.

Many others have less severe symptoms during the gray months of winter, feeling just a little "blah."

Light therapy is often prescribed to help SAD and can help those winter blahs, as well. Insufficient exposure to sunlight has been associated with low levels of melatonin and serotonin. These neurotransmitters affect mood, social awareness, libido, and sleep cycles. The affected person sits in front of a light box or wears a light visor, usually about 30 minutes each day throughout the fall and winter, when the disorder is most prevalent. If light therapy helps, it continues until enough sunlight is available, normally in the springtime.

Aromatherapy can also provide some relief. Aromatherapy is using essential oils in massage, inhalation, diffusion and bathing as a way to uplift the body, mind and spirit. The medicinal properties of the oils are absorbed through the skin or through the olfactory system into the blood stream. Jasmine and bergamot are uplifting and refreshing, while lavender is calming and relaxing. Lemon and grapefruit can help with mild depression, as well as water retention. Using high quality oils is important.

Supplying extra nutrients can also help. Vitamin B deficiency can be a physical cause of depression. Eat more wholefoods, cut back or eliminate sugar, tea, coffee, and alcohol. Increase intake of vitamin B complex, vitamin C, folic acid, calcium, potassium, and magnesium. Exercise also helps in depression because it stimulates circulation and releases serotonin in the brain.

L-tryptophan is the amino acid used by the body to manufacture serotonin. Several trials have shown that experimentally inducing a tryptophan deficiency in people with SAD who are in remission brings about a relapse of depressive symptoms. This suggests that supplemental L-tryptophan might be helpful in SAD. In small, preliminary trials, 4 to 6 grams of L-tryptophan given in divided amounts daily was as effective as light therapy and more effective than placebo. L-tryptophan may be of particular use in people with winter depression who do not benefit from light therapy. In a preliminary trial, people with SAD who responded only partially or not at all to bright light therapy were given 1,000 mg of L-tryptophan three times daily in addition to 10,000 lux light therapy for 30 minutes every morning. Sixty-four percent of them had significant improvement in depressive symptoms while receiving both L-tryptophan and bright light therapy. L-tryptophan is currently available by prescription only.

5-HTP is related to L-tryptophan and increases serotonin production and has shown antidepressant activity. It may also be useful in the treatment of SAD, but there is currently no research testing this possibility. Use of this supplement by those taking SSRIs or MAOIs should only be under the auspices of a physician.

Omega 3 fatty acids can be very helpful with mood and depression, as well as anxiety, inflammation, skin, ADD/ADHD, to lower triglycerides, help protect against stroke, as well as breast, colon and prostate cancer, helps in lowering high blood pressure, and even as part of a weight loss plan (has powerful effect on fat metabolism). Some good sources are salmon, walnuts, flaxseed, tofu, and green leafy vegetables, or in the form of supplements such as fish oil or flaxseed oil.

St. John’s wort is an herb known for its antidepressant activity. In a preliminary trial, patients with seasonal depression were given 900 mg per day of St. John’s wort in addition to either bright light (3,000 lux for two hours) or a dim light (300 lux for two hours) placebo. Both groups had significant improvement in symptoms, but there was no difference between the groups. Use of this herb by those taking SSRIs or MAOIs should only be under the auspices of a physician.

Columbus has many stores where these remedies can be purchased including Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, The Fitness and Nutrition Center, Raisin Rack, Clintonville Community Market, and Momentum98.

Acupuncture, massage therapy, yoga, chi gong, meditation, hypnosis, and tai chi can provide relief from SAD, as well. Columbus has a number of wellness centers and practitioners that can help.

Whether you suffer from SAD or are experiencing the blues from the dreary gray days in Columbus during the winter months, holistic remedies and alternative treatments can help you feel better and function more effectively. A vacation to the Caribbean wouldn't hurt, either!




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