EHS Corporate Care
For some executives, fall brings the energy of football and tailgates, holidays and family gatherings. For others, November means a serious mood change. Symptoms may creep up slowly or manifest quickly with excessive sleeping yet a lack of energy, or unusual cravings for sweets and starchy foods. These mild seasonal symptoms of depression may also include decreased sexual interest, hopelessness, lack of interest in normal activities, and social withdrawal.
Known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), we have written evidence of these symptoms dating back to the 1840s, but SAD wasn’t studied seriously until the 1980s. Today, it’s estimated nearly 20 percent of Americans suffer from some degree of SAD with adults at higher risk than children and teenagers. Interestingly, the risk of SAD starts to decline after the age of 50. Women are up to eight times as likely as men to report having SAD, yet men also report similar severity of symptoms.
As with many mental health conditions, the specific cause of SAD is unknown. While hard to diagnose, experts know a reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may disrupt the body’s biological clock, changing the circadian rhythm. Experts also believe reduced exposure to sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin and a disruption of the natural hormone melatonin, both critical to maintain sleep patterns and mood.
Obviously, location matters. During the winter months, people living farther north of the equator are more likely to suffer from SAD because latitudes above 40º north or south don’t generally receive enough UVB radiation to make sunlight convert 7-hydroxy cholesterol to vitamin D (for reference, Boston lies at 42º north, Washington, D.C., at 38º).
So, it stands to reason that the quickest ways to ease the symptoms of SAD is to get outside daily. Even 15 minutes of sun exposure will help produce vitamin D and stave off seasonal depression. If you can’t get outside, get moving. Daily exercise is a healthy way to increase your serotonin levels.
When there isn’t enough natural sun, light therapy is an effective solution. In fact, a recent study in Canada tested light therapy against the anti-depressant fluoxetine (Prozac). Researchers discovered that although both treatments relieved symptoms, light therapy worked faster with results in just one week. Another light option is a dawn simulator, essentially an alarm clock that gradually brightens the light in your bedroom to simulate the natural sunrise.
A healthy diet and proper vitamin levels can provide relief. Eating with the seasons seems to enable energy levels to better sync to the time of year, while avoiding refined carbs and sugars and choosing whole grains and complex carbohydrates helps with mood swings. Adding vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and especially fatty acids like omega-3’s to your diet will help with neurochemical imbalances. If you are short on sunshine and thus natural Vitamin D, work with your doctor to test your levels and get balanced. Vitamin D is fat-soluble and toxic at only high levels; 60-75 percent of those tested turn out to be deficient in Vitamin D.
This year, instead of dreading the darker days, set an appointment with your doctor at EHS Corporate Care to devise an overall strategy for the fastest relief of SAD symptoms.
John P. Mamana, M.D.
EHS Corporate Care