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Seasonal Affective Disorder

by June Butlin(more info)

listed in sad, originally published in issue 94 - November 2003

Thoughts of winter conjure up cold, crisp days, long walks, and warm, cosy, peaceful nights in front of the fire. However, for many people who suffer from 'Seasonal Affective Disorder' (SAD), winter is a time of depression, desolation and emptiness. SAD is an emotional disorder that only occurs during the winter months between September and April, with worsening symptoms during December through to February. Symptoms may include low energy, mood swings, depression, oversleeping, lowered immunity, decreased sociability, summer hypomania and cravings for carbohydrates, such as bread, chocolate and sugar. The underlying aetiology of SAD remains unclear and the two main areas of research at present focus on sunlight and balancing stress related hormones.

Sunlight is the source of all life-giving energy on the earth and a vital nutrient for our health and vitality. It has a profound effect biochemically as soon as it enters the body through the eyes by regulating hormonal activity via part of the brain called the hypothalamus. One of the hormones that is influenced by the light is melatonin, produced mainly from a small endocrine gland attached to the roof of the third ventricle of the brain called the pineal gland, with smaller quantities produced from the retina, gastrointestinal tract, liver, lungs, skin and certain lymphocytes. Melatonin has many roles in the body, amongst which are: inducing a state of relaxation leading to sleep, coordinating circadian rhythms (the body's biological clock) and enhancing memory and immune function. The secretion of melatonin is increased at night, peaking at around 2am and decreased during daylight hours. It is thought that the reduced melatonin during the day and the overproduction of melatonin at night are contributory factors for SAD. Interestingly, people who live within 30 degrees of the Equator, where daylight hours are bright and long, rarely get SAD.

Melatonin also has a regulatory effect on stress related hormones to balance mood and lift depression and, conversely, stress related hormones have a regulatory effect on the amount of melatonin produced. For example, melatonin is itself produced from serotonin, a mood hormone, and yet another mood hormone, norepinephrine inhibits the secretion of melatonin. Other stress related hormones implicated are cortisol, adrenocorticotrophic hormone, adrenalin and dopamine. Balancing melatonin levels and stress related hormones need to be addressed in all cases of SAD, as can be seen in the case of Terry, a 52 year old architect, who had suffered from SAD for nine years with particular symptoms of depression, stress, inability to socialize and low energy, self esteem and immunity.

Terry attended my clinic in November 2001, willing to modify his diet and lifestyle to any extent to achieve wellness. Further investigation into his case history revealed weak digestive, eliminative and immune function, poor concentration and low blood sugar. The kinesiology assessment suggested low adrenal and thymus function and inadequate levels of vitamins B3, B5, B6 and C and minerals iron, zinc, and magnesium.

Terry's nutritional guidelines involved avoiding sugar, red meat, grapefruits, tea, coffee and alcohol. He ate an organic, wholefood diet based on oily and white fish, chicken, eggs and vegetarian protein, a wide variety of vegetables, brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, nuts, seeds, flax and hemp seed oils, apples, pears, berry fruits, prunes and lots of filtered water. The diet was planned to include high levels of foods containing the amino acids tryptophan and methionine, vitamins B1, B3, B5, B6, C and folic acid and minerals zinc, magnesium and iron, which are the cofactors to produce serotonin and melatonin. The timing of foods was also important and Terry learned to eat in tune with his natural circadian rhythms. These rhythms work cyclically throughout the day and night to balance the body's chemistry; for example, the liver's capacity to detoxify is most active between 1-3am and the small intestine's ability to digest and absorb is most active between 1-3pm. Terry ate protein in the morning to balance the adrenal glands, which produce hormones that affect mood, concentration and mental alertness, and also to stabilize blood glucose levels, which, if not controlled, increase melatonin levels. He ate mainly carbohydrates in the evening to help the body to maintain the blood glucose levels required for the night-time activities of detoxification and repair.

He took two supplements to help the immune system: an organic vitamin and mineral drink containing spirulina, blue-green algae, chlorella and various herbs containing vitamin C to aid thymic, white blood cell production and a capsule containing pine bark grape seed extract, circumin, lycopene and L Glutathione. After two months, Terry's digestive, eliminative and adrenal function improved, his blood glucose levels stabilized and he felt less depressed.

He then attended counselling sessions to deal with underlying past and present concerns, practised breathing exercises, took daily walks and learned to set long- and short-term goals. He also used a high frequency, full spectrum light box of 10,000 lux for half an hour daily to restore melatonin synthesis and secretion and re-establish circadian rhythms. Terry continued his diet and health regime throughout 2002 and followed a detoxification and an organ support programme in May and June, which left him feeling fit, healthy and free of depression. At the end of August 2002 he added a supplement called gamma-amino-butyric acid (GABA), an amino acid, which has a regulatory affect on the stress hormones, noradrenaline, dopamine and serotonin, and, during October, took valeriana, a herb that enhances GABA activity and helps to reduce anxiety and tension. During the winter of 2002-3 Terry remained physically and mentally healthy, his energy and self-esteem increased and he was able to socialize. He still had occasional symptoms of SAD, but they were only slightly more pronounced than the natural, subtle level of SAD that many of us experience in winter.

Further Information

Help for SAD sufferers can be obtained from SAD Association, PO Box 989, Steyning, BN44 3HG or


Baker S. The Circadian Prescription. Berkley Publishing Group. 2000.


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About June Butlin

June M Butlin PhD is a trained teacher, nutritionist, kinesiologist, aromatherapist, fitness trainer and sports therapist. She is a writer, health researcher and lecturer and is committed to helping people achieve their optimum level of health and runs a private practice in Wiltshire. June can be contacted on 01225 869 284;

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