SAD in All Seasons

May 7, 02:09 AM

by Katharine Koeppen, RA

Many people know about SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), a condition related to wintertime depressive states. SAD is due to an imbalance in serotonin and melatonin levels, which are involved in the regulation of our circadian rhythms, affecting our natural wake and sleep cycle as related to perceptions of light and dark. Most people who suffer from this condition become listless, depressed and apathetic in late fall or early winter. They become anxious, oversleep, crave carbohydrate-rich foods, gain weight, withdraw socially and may have feelings of heaviness in the limbs. Once the days become longer, their symptoms disappear and they lead normal lives until the next winter season.

Less often, people may suffer from SAD during the summer, when it is called Summer Seasonal Affective Disorder. Summer SAD presents with a somewhat different set of symptoms. Depression, anxiety and sleep disturbances still occur, but individuals suffer from insomnia rather than an excessive need to sleep. They have a loss of appetite, often drop weight, have an increased sex drive and may become agitated or irritable. People with Summer SAD benefit from the same therapies as those with the more common Winter Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Getting on a regular sleep/wake cycle is important, and something most of us ignore... nightly television, 24 hour internet surfing, long periods of cell phone conversation/texting and evening incandescent light throw off our circadian rhythms. To some extent this affects all of us, but it's much worse for people with SAD. It's crucial for these people to avoid excessive sensory stimulation and light exposure late at night. Aromatherapy can help in the form of sedative nighttime baths, foot soaks or diffusion of relaxing essential oils into the environment. Lavender, bergamot, mandarin, clary sage, ylang ylang and sweet marjoram are recommended, both for their ability to help an agitated individual wind down at the end of the day and their ability to help banish insomnia. 

Just as someone with SAD has difficulty relaxing at night, so they often have difficulty waking and concentrating in the morning. A stimulating aromatherapy bath or brisk exfoliation in the shower can get them ready to face the day. Rosemary, bay laurel, lemon, grapefruit, basil (ct. methyl chavicol) and ginger essential oils are all invigorating, and may also be diffused in the bedroom or bath while preparing for work. If necessary, these may be diffused or inhaled at the office if concentration or mental focus is a problem.

Anxiety may be mitigated at any time of day or night by essential oils such as vetivert, bergamot, petitgrain, ylang ylang, frankincense or lavender. Room diffusion or inhalation from a sniffer stick is very effective for this type of application.

If food cravings are an issue, fennel oil is a good appetite supressant, and some find that inhaling peppermint or lemon may be helpful. If the appetite needs to be stimulated, mandarin or clementine petitgrain can be used via inhalation.

Many other alternative therapies can work in tandem with aromatic solutions. Those with Winter SAD are often encouraged to pursue light therapy using a full spectrum lightbox. It is important to note that Summer SAD sufferers need light exposure, too, during a time of year when many people slather on sunblock. It is recommended that most persons have 15-20 minutes of daily unprotected exposure to sunlight during off-peak hours (before 10am and after 2pm). This is long enough for our bodies to produce the amount of vitamin D required for normal metabolism. Vitamin D3 supplementation may be necessary in those with very chronic depression or older people with SAD.

Because those with SAD have a body which is out of kilter on multiple levels, it can be helpful to supplement with adaptogenic herbs, which are highly balancing and also support the immune system. These include rhodiola, ashwaganda, astragalus and schisandra, as well as reishi and maitake mushrooms. These herbs and mushrooms may be taken in the form of capsules, tinctures or teas. Avoid ginseng, which is an adaptogen but can be overstimulating to some.

Melatonin has received widespread recognition as a pineal gland and sleep regulator, as well as a mild immunostimulant. But be careful... according to aromatherapist and holistic physician Raphael d'Angelo, MD, melatonin is sedative to 50% of the population and stimulating to the other half! Persons wishing to try melatonin should start with the smallest possible dose and increase consumption very slowly, monitoring their bodies carefully for any stimulatory effects.

Lastly, regular exercise is strongly recommended to help mitigate either type of SAD. Exercise helps release tension and anxiety, relieves depression, and generally brightens the mood. Thirty minutes of activity 3-4 times a week is suggested, and those with SAD would do well to consider outdoor exercise.

Dr. d'Angelo once suffered from Winter SAD and strongly believes in managing the disorder via natural means, particularly aromatherapy and dietary supplementation. There are many other alternative remedies that can help control SAD, too many to list in this post. The Mayo Clinic's website and WebMD are two good places to explore these options.


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