Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), or seasonal depression, is a form of depression that often occurs during the change of seasons and starts and ends around the same times every year. Seasonal depression is estimated to affect over 10 million Americans every year and is four times as likely to affect women as compared to men. Like other forms of depression, the exact cause of SAD is still somewhat unclear, however, links between sunlight exposure and neurotransmitter levels of serotonin and melatonin are the conventional lens through which our medical system looks at and treats the issue.
Although it may seem almost sacrilegious to go against this theory, there is a mounting pile of evidence pointing to a different underlying reason behind why SAD and general depression is plaguing us more than ever in human history.
Symptoms of Seasonal Depression
- Experiencing a sad/depressed mood
- Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Having low energy
- Problems sleeping or oversleeping
- Experiencing changes in appetite
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling hopeless
- Thoughts of death or suicide
Traditional Medicine’s Treatment of Seasonal Depression
The common practice for treating SAD centers around three main options:
Light Therapy – An individual sits a few feet from a specially designed lightbox that projects bright light. The light acts similar to natural sunlight, attempting to stimulate the production of neurotransmitters in the brain. Light therapy is performed daily, for 30 to 60 minutes, and presents minimal side effects.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – Also called talk therapy, CBT can be an effective treatment option for individuals with seasonal depression. Speaking with a trained psychologist or psychiatrist can help individuals change negative thought patterns, manage stress better, and learn how to cope with seasonal depression symptoms.
Anti-Depressants – Prescription medication is a popular choice for treating a variety of depression forms. Bupropion medications like Wellbutrin XL and Aplenzin are common anti-depressants prescribed for individuals suffering from SAD.
The drawback of these prescribed medications is the occasional lack of effectiveness and adverse side effects. Bupropion includes a wide list of possible adverse reactions, such as:
- Blurred vision
- Skin rash
- Weight loss or gain
- And…depression (no, this is not a typo!)
While anti-depressants may improve some individual’s seasonal depression symptoms, they can also run the risk of amplifying the symptoms and negative effects of SAD.
How Hill Functional Wellness Approaches Seasonal Depression
What traditional medicine gets wrong about depression conceptually is that it is strictly a chemical imbalance within the brain. Several reputable studies have shown that low levels of norepinephrine and serotonin are only present in about 25% of individuals with depression diagnoses. Yet most conventional medial treatment focuses solely on increasing the concentrations of these neurotransmitters pharmaceutically. So to be more genuine in our understanding, we must expand our understanding that depression seems to be a symptom of an underlying problem – not the problem itself. Here is where functional medicine takes a wide-angle view of the condition and how to treat it.
There is a maturing hypothesis in the functional healthcare world that neurotransmitter imbalance is not even the primary issue plaguing those who suffer from depression – seasonal or otherwise. Instead, the theory is that depression symptoms are just that – symptoms of an underlying inflammatory problem in the gut and brain. There have been numerous studies and meta-analyses that have pointed to this correlation with very compelling data. Among the details that support this idea are:
- Higher levels of inflammation increase the risk of depression.
- Remission of depression also strongly correlates with normalization of systemic inflammatory markers.
- Administering an endotoxin-mediated artificial inflammatory response in human beings also triggers a classic depressive response.
All treatment at Hill Functional Wellness starts with objective testing — it’s important to decipher what the body is saying internally before recommending an action plan. From the results of the blood, hair, urine, and stool samples (depending on the individuals presentation), we can see if any nutrient deficiencies exist, or if abnormal levels of key health indicators are signally a potential risk.
Another point that cannot be overlooked is that psychosocial and environmental influences are also very important to look at and address for each individual. Diet, lifestyle, social support, and other factors can be primary driving forces in the production and progression of depression, so these must be investigated.
Fixing the Digestive System
The immune system and the digestive tract are largely intertwined. Nearly 80% of a person’s active immune function takes place in the gut. If an individual’s gut health is poor, their immune system is going to react accordingly, and often result in chronic inflammation. This can trigger a domino effect, affecting the central nervous system and spurring on greater depressive episodes and further disease. Because of this, examining and adjusting a diet is often the starting point to addressing seasonal depression.
Following a diet that introduces plenty of vitamins and nutrients to the body will help boost energy levels and promote overall well being. The Mediterranean or Paleo diets could be an effective nutritional plan, but a handful of core concepts can be applied to the diet to produce beneficial outcomes regardless of what you call it:
- Higher omega-3 fat intake by eating oily cold-water fish (salmon, tuna, trout, mackerel)
- High-quality chicken and turkey
- Adequate complex carbs and fiber from beans and chickpeas
- Nuts with diverse fat profiles (ex. Brazilian nuts, cashews, walnuts)
- Dark green vegetables (ex. spinach, kale, cabbage)
Additionally, it is recommended to avoid alcohol, tobacco, refined grains, artificial sugars, and caffeine. These things have a high tendency to increase the severity of seasonal depressive symptoms.
Address Exercise and Sleeping Habits
The hormone cortisol is thought to be instrumental in the development of depression, as it can be a factor in raising stress levels. This isn’t typically an issue when it happens periodically, but when it becomes the norm, it can become an issue. While depressed episodes may cause individuals to want to avoid exercise, it remains a vital part of treating seasonal depression. Exercise helps reduce stress and lower cortisol levels, additionally, exercise done outside helps expose the body to more beneficial moderate sunlight.
Exercise is also helpful to improve sleep patterns. It is recommended that adults receive eight to nine hours of quality sleep each night. During this time, the body undergoes important rest and repair. Proper sleep habits will help reduce stress and balance melatonin levels in the brain.
Supplements for Seasonal Depression
Based on an individual’s blood work, additional supplements may help improve their seasonal depression. Omega 3, vitamin D, B vitamins, and others have all shown links to improving depression symptoms in conjunction with other lifestyle factors.
Final Thoughts on Seasonal Depression
Seasonal depression is more than just the “winter blues,” and should be treated as such. Functional healthcare approaches the disease with the whole individual in mind – “how is this disease affecting a person mentally, emotionally, and physically?” Seasonal depression can’t be treated with a one-size-fits-all approach and requires looking deeper into an individual’s symptoms, objective health measures, and life circumstances.
If you are seeking care for your depressive episodes, we encourage you to reach out to us here at Hill Functional Wellness. A functional medicine approach may be the right fit for you.
Natural Healing for Seasonal Depression
If you are suffering from depression, and desire to address your health without the use of anti-depressants, we can help devise a healing plan that fits your life. Contact us today to schedule an appointment at our Tempe, Arizona office, and together we will work to address your specific health concerns.