Autumn is well and truly here and if you’re one of the 7% of our population that suffers from SAD, you’re probably starting to feel the effects. SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder has recently been classified as a form of bipolar disorder, as in many cases sufferers will experience a hyperactive or ‘manic’ phase before a bout of depression. In many cases symptoms are quite mild, but most of those affected will notice that they feel more lethargic, tearful, shy, or anxious than during the summer months. Sleep can also be a problem, with patients wanting more sleep but waking in the early hours of the morning. It’s widely experienced by those living in the far north or south, and our season generally runs from around September to April, although with our summers as they are, many have it then too!
Some experts believe that rather than being a disorder, SAD is a natural response which has enabled us to survive cold weather throughout our evolutionary history. With food scarce, like many animals we would have undergone a form of hibernation during the winter months, and reproduction would have been put on hold until food became more plentiful. It’s interesting that many sufferers notice a lack of libido after the weather turns, and in northern Sweden infertility in women has been successfully treated with the same light therapy as SAD users.
SAD can be very disruptive both to sufferers and their families, affecting work and family life, but help is at hand.
This is a condition where it’s wise to seek help from a Herbalist at least to begin with, as everyone experiences it differently and in severe cases symptoms can swing quite rapidly between anxiety and depression. Any sleep problems also need to be addressed, as they make the condition much harder to cope with overall.
Adaptogens are herbs which help the body adapt to stress, and one of my favourites for SAD is Withania somnifera, whose latin name means ‘to aid sleep’. Quite often my patients will have this as the basis of their herbal prescription throughout winter and preferably from early September onwards (as prevention is better than cure!). Withania gently supports the adrenal glands, raising vitality at the same time as having a calming effect.
I also use herbs such as St John’s Wort or Rosemary to lift the depression, sometimes giving quite high doses as and when they’re needed. Whether or not the person is in a depressed phase I will usually include herbs with antidepressant actions, so that it buffers the onset of depression when it comes and half the battle is won.
Anxiety and insomnia can usually be helped by giving herbs with sedative actions, and herbs of choice might include Chamomile, Limeflower or Lemon Balm in mild cases, or stronger ones like Valerian or Passionflower where more help is needed. These types of herb can be used in a sleep mix and taken before bed, or in smaller doses during the day to help manage anxiety attacks.
Vitamin C and B complex are really important in supporting the adrenal glands and have a multitude of health benefits when taken sensibly. Omega 3 and 6 in the right proportions are also essential for healthy brain function, so if you’re not veggie, make sure you eat plenty of oily sea fish such as mackerel or sardines during the winter, and consider taking some good quality capsules. Vegetarians can use flax or hemp seed oil, or nuts as a source of Omegas. Patrick Holford’s excellent book ‘Optimum Nutrition for the Mind’ is well worth reading for more information on how nutrition can help all the symptoms of SAD.
It’s quite common for sufferers to crave carbohydrates and put on weight as a result, and a Herbalist may approach this by giving herbs such as Oats which help to keep blood sugar levels steady. The cravings can be the body’s way of getting a quick fix of Melatonin which temporarily relieve the symptoms. Chromium with Vitamin B3 is also very useful for controlling cravings, but please get a proper assessment from a nutritional therapist before taking supplements to ensure you get the correct vitamins and minerals in the correct dose.
As SAD is thought to be caused by low levels of Melatonin, a brain chemical which makes us feel good, it makes sense to make it as easy as possible for a SAD sufferer to make more Melatonin. This can be supported in a number of ways when we understand where Melatonin comes from. Melatonin is made from another chemical, Serotonin which comes from the amino acid Tryptophan. The whole process depends on getting adequate levels of sunlight in order to work properly.
Tryptophan can be found naturally in starchy foods such as pasta which might explain why SAD patients crave them, but if you don’t want to put on the weight, ripe (yellow-black) bananas, dairy products, chicken and nuts will all boost your Tryptophan levels.
It’s important to sleep in complete darkness or by moonlight only if you want to make enough Melatonin, as artificial light may interfere with the synthesis of Melatonin. Try fitting black out blinds, removing LEDs from your bedroom and learning to find your way to the loo in the dark. As soon as it’s light, try and look in the direction of the sun (but not directly at it) for a few minutes with no windows or spectacles in the way. Also try and get outside at lunchtime whatever the weather, and if possible incorporate some outdoor cardiovascular exercise such as walking or jogging into your daily routine.
Many sufferers also find that light boxes or clocks are very helpful and well worth the cost. If you work indoors you may be able to persuade your employer to fit full spectrum light tubes in the area where you work, and these have been found to increase productivity by up to 25%, so they’ll be getting their money’s worth at the same time!. The boxes should again be used first thing in the morning when the pineal gland which makes Melatonin is at its most active, and the clocks work by turning the light on gradually to simulate dawn. Much nicer to wake up to than an alarm clock!.
As always, if you’re really suffering, have a chat with your local Herbalist. To find yours, go to www.nimh.org.uk.