Seasonal-affective disorder is treatable

Fall has to be one of the most spectacular times of the year here in the Southwest.

There is beauty everywhere and the temperatures of Indian Summer are perfect for being outside to enjoy it. It is like a big finale at a fireworks show before the dark and quiet of winter arrive. The change of seasons is one of our oldest environmental transitions and has a big influence on our internal physiology.

Seasonal changes that create decreased hours of daylight and colder temperatures also cause changes in our own body chemistry. This influence of the natural world on the internal world of our bodies is something that our bodies are well designed to adapt to. Seasonal-affective disorder (SAD) occurs when our ability to adapt to these changes is impaired.

SAD is prevalent even in our sunny southwestern climate. Symptoms usually start to show up in September and October. The symptoms of SAD may be very mild or more severe, depending on how out of balance you are when the darker, cooler weather begins. It can look like a decrease in energy or a lack of motivation. It can also be more severe and manifest as severe fatigue and depression.

Why does this happen? In the fall, our bodies begin to focus on energy conservation as a survival strategy to make it through the barren winter months. Metabolism slows down in an attempt to preserve precious calories. One major effect of decreased sunlight is an increased production of the hormone melatonin. Melatonin is one of the major regulators of our sleep/wake cycles. When we produce more melatonin, we sleep more. When we sleep more, we use fewer calories.

One of the major mechanisms for SAD is that melatonin is actually made from the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin helps us to feel happy, safe, calm and motivated. When melatonin production goes up in the winter more serotonin is used to make it. That means that there will be less serotonin around to make us feel good. Because of high stress levels and other factors, many people are already deficient in serotonin when winter arrives. When the increased winter demand for melatonin occurs, these people are already in serotonin debt.

So how can you improve your balance and enjoy winter instead of suffering through it? Supporting your body’s natural ability to adapt to is crucial. Make sure that you are getting all necessary vitamins and nutrients to support your production of serotonin. Nutrients such as zinc, B vitamins, magnesium and vitamin C are required to make serotonin. The most common nutrient deficiencies that I see are of zinc, magnesium and vitamin B6. Protein intake and absorption also are very important as the amino acids from proteins provide the basic building blocks of all of our brain chemicals.

Other effective treatment options include L-tryptophan, 5HTP, SAMe, light therapy and a mid-winter trip to a tropical paradise. Treating stress will allow less of your serotonin to be used to deal with it.

Effectively treating SAD can help you enjoy wintertime instead of suffering through it. Nancy Utter is a Durango-based naturopathic doctor who works with people of all ages and varying illnesses.