September is now in full swing – the kids are back in school, universities and colleges have started, all the extra-curricular activities have begun, and the stress at work may be back as year-end deadlines approach.

Do you find yourself prone to feeling depressed at this time of year as we transition from Summer to Fall?  Do you find you have more of an uplifted and happier mood when it is sunnier outside and thus, prefer the Spring and Summer more?  If this sounds like you, you may have something coined Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that occurs seasonally.  The signs and symptoms of SAD include (1):

  • Feeling sad or depressed for most of the day
  • A lack of motivation or loss of interest to engage in activities
  • Feeling tired and low energy
  • Sleep issues
  • Appetite changes
  • And if severe, it can create feelings of hopelessness and guilt and thoughts of suicide and/or death. 

As you can see, it can be hard to distinguish between true depression or experiencing SAD however if you notice that this really happens to you only seasonally, it could be SAD.  Most people experience this phenomenon with the onset of Fall with improvement in mood come Spring.

Possible Causes and What You Can Do

Seasonal Affective Disorder can kick in with changes in our circadian rhythm as the number of sunlight hours drop and we have more hours of darkness.  Our melatonin production may increase during the Fall and Winter due to increased hours of darkness contributing to lower energy and feeling tired more and having a hard time waking up in the morning.

The best way to combat SAD and improve your mood and motivation throughout the Fall and Winter is exposing yourself to as much bright light during the day.  Wake up in the morning and use a bright light that mimics outdoor light (sunrise alarms) and open your curtains to let in any natural daylight as soon as you get out of bed – this helps to provoke a secretion in cortisol in the morning which inhibits melatonin production.

Opening window and curtains for bright light in the morning

Serotonin

Recent research has shown a link between light and higher active serotonin levels which demonstrates that SAD can also be associated with fluctuating serotonin levels. (2)  Serotonin is a neurotransmitter responsible for regulating our calm and positive or happy mood.  Our neurons have a serotonin transporter protein (SERT) which enables serotonin to be taken back in the neurons for storage and cleared out from the active space when it is not needed (2). Too much serotonin can result in serotonin syndrome. This adverse effect is more common to occur when one is supplementing with nutrients to boost serotonin along with taking antidepressants which is why it is SO important to work with a healthcare professional to ensure there are no interactions between your supplements and medications.

Serotonin Syndrome can happen from taking too much serotonin and symptoms include diarrhea, increased body temperature, sweating, anxiety, agitation, tremor, and dilated pupils).

Light lowers SERT activity which keeps more serotonin active – why sunlight in the summer can make us feel happier.  In the winter, a study showed that some people tend to have higher SERT activity because of the low levels of light leading to more serotonin clearance and these individuals displayed signs of SAD. (2)  This is another reason why exposing yourself to as much light as possible can help to increase serotonin levels.

Exercising in the morning can help improve energy and mood as exercise induces cortisol production and cortisol is meant to be at its highest in the morning to suppress melatonin.

If you find yourself still in that depressed slump, there are always supplements that can help increase serotonin and working with a naturopathic doctor can determine the best supplements for you based on your health and any medications you are taking to get you over the slump so you can feel good enough to implement some lifestyle changes.

Hormonal imbalances like increased cortisol (stress hormone) or fluctuating estrogen levels can impact serotonin production as well.  A great percentage of serotonin is made in the gut and digestive troubles (bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, gut inflammation) can contribute to low serotonin.  There is functional testing that is available to assess hormones in a comprehensive manner and working with a naturopathic doctor can help you navigate the complex world of balancing hormones, reducing gut inflammation and fixing your digestion to help support optimal serotonin levels and improve mood.

REFERENCES:
  1. Mayo Clinic Staff. (2017, October 25). Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved on September 16, 2019 from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20364651
  2. European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP). (2014, October 20). Biochemical cause of seasonal depression (SAD) confirmed by researchers. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 16, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/10/141020212412.htm
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