Unexpected TRIGGERS for Seasonal Affective Disorder
Plus, the Icelandic secret to happiness
As the vibrant colors of fall give way to the cold, stark landscapes of winter, many of us feel a return of the oh-so-familiar symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
Of course, many experts blame the condition almost exclusively on reduced sunlight exposure…
But that’s NOT the entire story.
In fact, recent research suggests there are other surprising triggers of SAD that have nothing to do with daylight. And, unlike the dark days of winter, they’re factors entirely within YOUR CONTROL.
I’m talking about everything from a “guilty pleasure” many folks ENJOY… to the way you spend your waking hours… to a simple Icelandic secret you can indulge in.
I’ll tell you all about these mood-altering triggers in just a moment. But first, let’s back up…
“Hello darkness, my old friend”
More than just the “winter blues,” SAD refers to a type of major depression that follows a consistent, recurring pattern. It comes on in the late fall, worsens in the winter, and begins to lift by the spring.1,2
Of course, as the acronym would suggest, feeling sad is a major symptom of the disorder. But other hallmark symptoms include: lack of energy, anxiety, agitation, limbs that feel heavy, trouble concentrating, loss of interest in usual activities, oversleeping, and weight gain. (Learn more about addressing low energy levels on page 6.)
SAD affects roughly 5 percent of U.S. adults and tends to occur more often in women than in men. It also tends to begin in young adulthood (between the ages 18 and 30).
Researchers don’t know exactly what causes SAD, but most theories pinpoint seasonal disruptions, decreased sunlight exposure, genetic factors, and psychological predispositions.
Of course, NONE of those factors are within your control. But emerging research suggests there may be another trigger for SAD… one that IS entirely within your control.
It’s a bad habit most Americans love. But taming it may help ease your SAD symptoms—or even better, reverse them… forever!
Targeting a familiar foe
By now, you should know about the many dangers of sugar in the diet. It causes systemic chronic inflammation. It also increases insulin resistance, disrupts gut health, and causes oxidative stress that can lead to DNA damage.
In short, we can blame sugar for just about every disease in the book… from Type 2 diabetes to cancer.3
And now, two major studies suggest sugar plays a MAJOR ROLE in the development of SAD.
In the first study, researchers with the University of Kansas argue that sugar triggers metabolic, inflammatory, and neurobiological changes that pave the way to full-blown clinical depression.
To make matters worse, when feelings of depression emerge in November, it often prompts more cravings for sugar. Meaning depressed patients seek out a “high” by consuming more treats—setting off a vicious cycle that often continues until the spring, when they start eating a bit healthier again.
And when you think about all the extra sugar people consume during the holidays, it’s really no wonder they begin to feel sad and depressed. Just look at all the pumpkin spice lattes, pecan pie brownies, and sugar cookies flooding shelves and kitchens everywhere!
Plus, another meta-analysis looked at dietary patterns among people with SAD.4
Here again, they found strong evidence that people with SAD tend to eat more starch- and sugar-laden foods. They also tend to consume “significantly” larger dinners and snack more in the evenings.
Of course, the solution here is pretty obvious…
As we head into the winter months, take extra care to bypass the sugary and carb-laden foods on the holiday table. Instead, reach for all the nutrient-dense whole foods with healthy fats.
You may even try revamping your holiday menu altogether to lessen the temptation, starting with a healthy dietary habit from Iceland…
Iceland in late fall and winter is pretty dark and dreary.
In fact, if there’s anywhere in the world where you’d expect to see sky-high rates of SAD, it’s in Iceland—where they get just four hours of sunshine a day in the winter months.
But Iceland actually has some of the LOWEST rates of SAD. In fact, they’re among the happiest people in the world! And there’s probably one major reason why…
They eat much more fish. In fact, it’s commonly acknowledged that eating lots of fish helps them cope with the dark, dreary days.5
Of course, this makes perfect sense. Fish oil is packed with omega-3 fatty acids, like EPA and DHA, which are vital to brain function. And at least 30 clinical trials suggest omega-3s play a role in warding off depression.6
So, if you suffer from SAD, you may consider adding some wild-caught fish and seafood not only to your holiday spread, but to your dinner menu several times a week. (See page 8 for another healthy Thanksgiving Day recipe.)
I also urge you to take a daily, high-quality fish oil supplement that provides a total of 3,000 mg of combined EPA and DHA.
Now, let’s move on to additional ways to beat those “winter blues.”
Other lifestyle factors to consider
As I mentioned earlier, less sunlight exposure during the late fall and winter can play a role in SAD development. So, try offsetting this effect by soaking in some sunshine first thing in the morning.
Many also find relief using light therapy. This approach involves sitting in front of a medical device called a “light box” for about 30 minutes a day. It simulates exposure to strong sunlight by emitting anywhere from 2,500 to 10,000 lux (a measure of brightness).
Patients often experience improvements in depressive symptoms within just a few weeks, if not days, with this kind of non-invasive light therapy.7
In addition, your vitamin D levels can take a hit in the dark winter months. So, make sure to supplement with enough vitamin D daily.
A recent review found that daily doses as low as 50 mcg (2,000 IU) can help alleviate depression symptoms.8 And while that’s a great start, if you suffer from SAD, I recommend taking 250 mcg (10,000 IU) of vitamin D year-round. Just make sure to ask your doctor to check your vitamin D blood levels twice a year. With proper supplementation, you should see your levels climb into, and remain within, the optimal range of 80 to 100 ng/mL.
And, even though you may not feel like moving very much during the cold, dark months—exercise really helps lift the fog of SAD. In fact, in addition to helping you manage depression, it can cut your risk of ever developing it by a whopping 50 percent!9
All it takes is 20 to 30 minutes of light-intensity activity per day, like walking. (Bonus points if you can squeeze in some sunshine with this daily exercise goal!)
Top mood-boosting supplements to
help you through the winter
If you find you still need a little extra help getting through the winter downtimes, here are a few of my top mood-boosting supplement picks:
- Cannabidiol (CBD). This has all but eliminated any need for antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, or sleep medications in my practice. I personally like to recommend CBD oil because the dosing can be individualized. To find the dose that’s best for you, I recommend starting with a small amount under your tongue. Then, work your way up until you notice a marked improvement in your mood and motivation. (CBD is safe and non-addictive—meaning you can’t overdose on it.)
- SAM-e. This is an amino acid that helps boost serotonin levels. Take 400 to 800 mg every morning.
- B complex. B vitamins alleviate stress and boost energy. I usually recommend taking 100 mg of a B-complex each day. But I personally double up on my B vitamins in the winter—to the tune of 200 mg daily.
- Tryptophan. This nutrient can help raise serotonin levels and get you a good night’s sleep. I recommend 100 to 300 mg each night before bedtime in the winter.
- Zinc and magnesium. During these dark and gloomy months, I suggest taking30 mg of zincand 750 mg of magnesium daily. Both play an important behind-the-scenes role in mental health.
In the end, many factors, not just less sunlight exposure, seem to contribute to the development of SAD. But making a few simple lifestyle changes—starting with your Thanksgiving Day spread—can go a long way in helping you take control of SAD…
And ultimately, enjoy a brighter, happier winter season