Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that occurs during the same months of the year, each year. The majority of those with SAD experience this depression during the autumn and winter months, but SAD may also affect persons in spring or summer months.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a common phenomenon seen all around the world, but a slightly higher risk is seen in higher latitude areas of the world. The prevalence of SAD is approximately 5% in the U.S.,1 but subclinical levels of SAD are much more prevalent. The main hypothesis for the cause of SAD is the decreased sunlight exposure leading to a decrease in serotonin activity, which affects mood. Symptoms of SAD may include a seasonal pattern of:
Too much sunlight may be potentially harmful, but we now know that not getting enough outdoor sunlight decreases our vitamin D levels in our body and can affect our mood, however, there are natural strategies that may help individuals with SAD. Even a poor diet could worsen the depression associated with SAD, as fast-food and commercial baked goods have been linked to depression.2 A Nutritarian eating style is supportive for those with SAD.
Light therapy is the preferred treatment for SAD2 as it is a safe and effective method to help reduce depressive symptoms. This light may be from careful exposure to sunlight or from a specialized lamp. Morning light exposure is most effective.
Supplementing DHA and EPA has been shown to be useful at lowering the risk of developing SAD.3 It is also helpful for non-seasonal depressive symptoms and may be a safer alternative to medications.
Therapy or counseling may be important depending on the severity and circumstances, just as in any form of depression, in conjunction with these lifestyle changes to get the best results.
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The following are sample questions from the Ask the Doctor Community Platinum and higher members can post their health questions directly to Dr. Fuhrman. (All members can browse questions and answers.)
I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, which seems to be at its worst during the winter months. I know not to ingest stimulating foods, such as coffee and tea, as they do play a part in my melancholia, but what other foods should I avoid? And, do you have any other tips for overcoming SAD during particularly hard times of the year?
As far as foods to avoid, it comes down to eating a high nutrient diet and avoiding the processed, refined foods, including sugar and caffeine, and minimizing animal products to less than 10 percent of total calories. Take the supplements I recommend to avoid deficiencies in B12, Vitamin D, and DHA, and get plenty of sunshine. It is important that the exposure to sunshine occur at the same time each day, first thing in the morning. When this is not an option, I recommend light therapy with a therapeutic light designed for this purpose.