Are You Depressed? Or are you SAD?

  • Written by Dr. Maegan Knutson
Have you been feeling down lately? Is this weather making you SAD? Or are you starting to think it is something more? Are the short days causing you to sleep more and exercise less? Have you been craving sweets and gaining weight? Are you having trouble getting out of bed in the morning? The winter blues seem to be a Northwest epidemic but sometimes what started out as seasonal begins to stick around all year long.

Why is that?

The amount of natural light that enters your body through your eyes (retina) and interacts with your skin has dramatic effects on the whole body. Your circadian rhythm is based on the amount of natural (or full spectrum) light that registers in your eyes. This tells your brain when you should be awake but it also affects your production of the happy neurotransmitter serotonin. That’s right, the amount of light outside literally affects your brain chemistry. The low levels of serotonin that happen during the winter can lead to symptoms of depression, low mood, lack of motivation, oversleeping and overeating (especially sweets). If these symptoms are dramatic they are diagnosed as a depressive disorder called SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), but the amount of light outside affects everyone.

Once the serotonin level is low, people often tend to let self-care go. This perpetuates the cycle. If you are tired, avoiding exercise and social interaction in the winter season, then you might not have the motivation to get outside in spring and replenish your serotonin. This can lead to a cycle of declining depression that lasts all year long.

Lack of light also affects your vitamin D levels additionally affecting your mood. In the Pacific Northwest, the majority of people who are not on vitamin D supplementation are deficient in vitamin D. Everyone should know what their vitamin D levels are. To find out all you need is a simple blood test of vitamin D 25, OH (25-hydroxycholecalciferol, D2 + D3). An optimal vitamin D level is 40-100 ng/mL. The symptoms of vitamin D deficiency include fatigue, low mood, bone loss (osteoporosis) and hormone imbalance. Supplementation of vitamin D should be done with a D3 form and unless directed by a physician should not exceed 2000 IU each day.

Remember to take your fat soluble vitamin D supplements with a meal. Again, having low vitamin D in winter can begin a cycle of long standing depression that becomes hard to break.

Research on light therapy is well documented to improve mood and motivation.

Light therapy is likely to improve the winter blues dramatically. There are several lightbox units commercially available. You can also switch out some of your household light bulbs for full spectrum bulbs. Use these full spectrum lights during the daytime hours but switch them off at night to prevent disturbing your sleep.

Let’s take a quiz to see if you have the winter blues. In the last two weeks: Did you have trouble getting out of bed in the morning? Were you craving sweets, sugar,and carbohydrates? Have you lost interest in activities that would normally give you pleasure? Did you have less energy than you think you should have? Were you having trouble concentrating? Has your weight or appetite changed dramatically? Out of these six questions if you answered three or more with a yes, then you need to seek medical attention.

Regardless of your score, you should discuss these symptoms with your doctor. If you’re looking for a more natural approach, consider naturopathic medicine which offers individual treatment plans and focusing on treating the cause rather than the symptom of all that ails you.


Dr. Knutson is a naturopathic doctor and licensed acupuncturist. She may be reached at Health Moves, 17311 135th Ave NE, Ste. C-800 Woodinville, WA 98072, Phone: 425.402.9999 or www.Health

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