Aptly named, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is an annually recurring winter depression that extends far beyond the winter blues. Those suffering from SAD know that it can affect productivity, make activities of daily living difficult and decrease quality of life during the winter months. Alpha-Lipoic Acid, a novel antioxidant along with lifestyle and dietary modifications may be a perfect recipe for providing relief.
What is SAD?
The onset of SAD usually begins with the season change in September and October, and lasts throughout the fall and winter months into February or March. Typical symptoms of SAD are:
- Low mood/depression
- Poor concentration/memory
- Exhaustion/disrupted sleep/fatigue
- Inability to cope with stress
- Increased anxiety
SAD is a clinical subtype of major depressive disorder, and while symptoms dissipate in the lighter, warmer months, there are many physiological parallels. When looking at effective coping strategies, it’s important to look at the underlying mechanisms of depression as well as factors specific to the winter season.
Causes of SAD
The exact cause of SAD is still unknown; however, science has coalesced an abundance of theories, which have provided a framework for the management of the disorder.
Vitamin D and Light
Generally, SAD affects those who live in the northern hemisphere. This has led to a light deprivation theory, which states that SAD is caused by a lack of available sunlight. There is also a correlation between vitamin D levels and major depressive disorder. During the winter months, less sunlight is available and less time is spent outdoors, significantly reducing exposure to vitamin D.
It’s well accepted that neurotransmitter levels such as serotonin are altered in depression. In addition to assessing neurotransmitter levels, inflammation and mitochondrial health in the brain are important factors to consider. There’s some evidence that increased neuroinflammation, and dysfunctional mitochondria both in the body and brain can impact mood and contribute to clinical depression.
Research has begun to recognize levels of a protein called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) in the pathophysiology of depression. BDNF helps maintain both the health and survival of brain cells and is shown to be lower in individuals with diagnosed depression. In tandem with this, many antidepressants restore BDNF levels back to a normal range.
Some antioxidants, such as Alpha-Lipoic Acid have the ability to decrease inflammation, improve mitochondrial health and increase levels of BDNF. For this reason, antioxidant therapy is being looked at for management of mood disorders such as depression, anxiety and SAD. While this novel approach is still gaining traction and more research is needed, evidence for the use of antioxidants such as ALA is strong.
How can ALA help in SAD?
As mentioned, the mechanisms underlying SAD are yet to be fully understood. However, given what is known- ALA is being looked at therapeutically in both major depressive disorder and SAD for a few reasons:
- Animal research is showing that ALA has the potential to increase BDNF levels in the cerebral cortex. While human trials are needed, the results on animal models are promising
- Evidence suggests that ALA can cross the blood brain barrier and therefore exert its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects directly in neural tissue.
- Most antioxidants don’t target the mitochondria specifically. ALA is an exception and has been shown to protect the mitochondria from oxidative stress, which could have positive implications in mood and mood disorders
Lifestyle and Nutrition
SAD Lamp- These lamps can offer relief to those dealing with the effects of seasonal depression, as they help reset the body’s sleep/wake cycle also known as the circadian rhythm.
Vitamin D- Supplementation or taking advantage of the sunny days during the winter months can help increase vitamin D levels and reduce the symptoms of SAD. As levels of vitamin D vary from person to person, it’s advisable to get levels tested and work with a health care practitioner to determine an appropriate dose.
Exercise-Although it doesn’t sound appealing to trek through the snow or rain to the gym in minus temperatures- exercise can a profound effect on depressive symptoms. Movement releases endorphins, which help you to feel happier. As a bonus, high intensity exercise increases levels of BDNF- supporting healthy neurological function.
Dietary Choices – Dialing in nutrition over the winter months can help balance neurotransmitters. There’s a large body of evidence connecting the gut microbiome to mood and brain health. Creating a thriving internal environment by eating lots of fruits, vegetables and fiber can positively influence factors that contribute to the onset of mood disorders.
When it comes to SAD, a multifactorial approach is the best course of action. It’s important to note that managing SAD or clinical depression will look different for everyone. If you’ve been feeling down this winter, suffer from or have been diagnosed with SAD always consult with your healthcare practitioner before making changes to your health plan.
Disclaimer: this article is not a substitute for medical advice
Author: Lisa Kowalyk, B.Kin, CNP