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Beat the Winter Blues- Naturally!

 

Two Supplements that May Help Fight Seasonal Depressive Disorder

Do you find that it takes more effort to get up and go when the days are short?  Are you more tired than usual in the winter months?  Do you find yourself craving sugar and starches, withdrawing from social activity, and/or falling prey to sad, gloomy thoughts? 

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are likely experiencing winter depression, more technically known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD for short).   And if you do, you are certainly not alone.  According to American Psychiatric Association Member Douglas Jacobs, M.D. in an article on their website HealthyMinds.org, approximately 10- 20% of the American population suffers from this phenomenon to some extent. 

The most likely cause of wintertime depression is the dearth of light during this time of year.  The exact mechanism by which light affects our moods is not fully understood. One theory is that levels of serotonin and melatonin, two hormones which help to regulate sleep cycles, are affected by light quality and duration. 

What are the signs and symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

People diagnosed with S.A.D. often experience a combination of the following symptoms:

  • Increased sleep
  • Increased appetite
  • Decreased concentration
  • Weight gain
  • Carbohydrate craving
  • Fatigue/inability to carry out normal routine
  • Feelings of misery, guilt, low self-esteem, despair, apathy                                             
  • Irritability
  • Avoidance of social contacts (“hibernation” syndrome)
  • Increased susceptibility to stress
  • Decreased interest in physical contact and sex  

What Treatment Options are Available?

The most common treatment prescribed for SAD is, of course, light therapy.  A number of products, such as light boxes and dawn simulators, are available which may bring relief to sufferers of winter blues.  Also recommended is exercise, especially anything that gets the depressed person outside in the sunlight, and attention to diet, avoiding excess sugar and other refined and processed foods. 

The role of nutritional supplements in the treatment of winter depression is a topic that has not been as popularized in the media as that of light therapy, but it is well worth looking into.  Two nutrients which have recently come to light as being helpful in this respect are chromium and Vitamin D. 

Chromium is a metallic element which acts as an essential trace mineral in the diet.  It is found in foods such as brewer’s yeast, organ meats, oysters, molasses, butter and eggs.  In the body it combines with other complexes to help regulate blood sugar. 

 As a dietary supplement, chromium is popularly used in conjunction with weight-loss and body-building programs.  As many as 90% of American diets may be low in this nutrient, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center.  The use of chromium to combat depression is relatively new.  A Chapel Hill, North Carolina psychiatrist by the name of Malcolm McLeod, M.D. discovered it while working with a patient suffering from depression.  The patient reported relief from his condition while taking a certain multivitamin.  Dr. McLeod had him take the nutrients present in the supplement one at a time until the one providing the benefit was identified.  That turned out to be chromium. 

In subsequent research conducted by Dr. McLeod and published in The International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, chromium supplementation was shown to result in “dramatic improvements in (the) symptoms and functioning” of patients with refractory mood disorders. McLeod theorizes that chromium may help alleviate depression by making it easier for the amino acid tryptophan to enter the brain.  Tryptophan is a biochemical precursor to a number of hormones, including serotonin and melotonin. 

April Johnson (not her real name), a resident of southwest Wisconsin, can attest to how effective this supplement can be.  She has suffered from mild seasonal depression most of her life, but two years ago last November she had a depressive episode unlike any she’d ever experienced. 

“It was like I had a huge underground ocean of sorrow,” she says.  “I would just burst out crying for no real reason at any time of the day.”  

This had been going on for a week or two when she read an article in a health newsletter about the use of chromium piccolinate to treat depression.  She decided to give it a try.

“It was amazing.  After a day or two on the chromium, the depression went away.  And if I stopped taking it, I’d get depressed again.  I tried a couple different brands. One of them worked for me, another didn’t.  And I actually ended up taking chromium polynicotinate instead of the piccolinate- it seemed to work just as well.” 

One word of caution- a 1995 study published in the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology found that the introduction of chromium to hamster ovarian cells caused chromosomal damage.  However, those cells were directly exposed in a test tube to a level of chromium thousands of times higher than would be achieved through supplementation.  Many animal studies and human data strongly suggest that supplementation with chromium at normal therapeutic levels- 100 to 200 mcg daily for an adult- is not only completely safe but, in most cases, very beneficial – not only for treatment of depression, but for a host of other ailments as well.

Another nutrient that is beginning to receive attention for its use in treating seasonal depression is vitamin D.  Also known as the “sunshine vitamin,” the best natural source for this nutrient is the sun.  It is manufactured in our bodies in response to exposure to sunlight.  This, of course, presents a problem in cold climates during the winter months, as it is nearly impossible to get enough sun exposure to manufacture adequate amounts of Vitamin D.

 The importance of Vitamin D in the prevention of rickets has long been known, but it seems that researchers are discovering new benefits to this nutrient almost daily.  The Vitamin D Council, a nonprofit organization working to raise awareness about Vitamin D deficiency, states that insufficient levels of this nutrient contribute to a whole slew of ailments.  These include cancer, heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, and depression.

Vitamin D is crucial for promoting the absorption of calcium and phosphorus, and regulating their levels in the blood.  Calcium is essential for the proper functioning of the nervous system.  In other words, it is extremely important for mental health. 

There have been a number of studies showing a correlation between Vitamin D deficiency and mental illness, including depression.  In a 1999 study published in the Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging, supplementation with a one-time dose of 100,000 IU of a form of Vitamin D called ergocalciferol (Vitamin D2) outperformed light therapy in a group of Seasonal Affective Disorder sufferers. 

The Vitamin D Council is quick to point out that research on Vitamin D and depression is scanty as yet, and it would be wrong to pin one’s hopes too high on vitamin D supplementation as a cure.  However, it can’t hurt to give it a try and, given the worldwide prevalence of Vitamin D deficiency, it might be a good idea to supplement regardless. 

A person living in complete darkness would need to receive 4,000 IU of Vitamin D a day to remain healthy.  The Vitamin D Council suggests 2,000 IU daily as an average therapeutic dose, although the need for it can vary considerably from person to person and for any single individual throughout the year. 

 The council recommends having one’s blood tested for the nutrient regularly with what is known as a 25(OH)D test.  This cryptic collection of letters and numerals refers to calcidiol, a prehormone present in your blood that is made directly from Vitamin D.  This is the only blood test that should be used to test Vitamin D deficiency, and can be ordered by your doctor.   Optimal blood calciferol levels are between 45-60 ng/mL.  Low levels can be boosted by supplementation or exposure to sunlight.

One very important thing to keep in mind when discussing SAD is that, like any form of depression, it needs to be taken very seriously.  Depression can be debilitating, and in extreme cases, fatal.  If you or someone you know experiences more than just occasional minor blues, it is important to seek advice from a mental health professional. 

But for those of us who simply feel a little down in the winter or when skies are gray, home remedies, including supplements, can be the way to go.  Getting an extra boost of light, enough exercise and the nutrients your body needs may just make the difference between another bleak winter …and a season to remember! 

Get More Info on SAD Soother – Homeopathic remedy temporarily relieves feelings of sadness related to the winter season

 

Sources:
Douglas Jacobs, M.D.  “An APA expert answers common questions about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)”, American Psychiatric Association’s HealthyMinds.org. Ruth DeBusk, R.D., PhD, et.al. reviewers, “Chromium”, University of Maryland Medical Center. Malcolm McLeod and Robert N. Golden, “Chromium treatment of depression”, The International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, 2000.Malcolm McLeod, ChromiumConnection.com. DM Stearns, Sr Wise JP, SR Patierno and KE Wetterhahn, “Chromium (III) piccolinate produces chromosome damage in Chinese hamster ovary cells”, Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. Michael Gloth , Wasif Alam, and  Bruce Hollis “Vitamin D vs. broad spectrum phototherapy in the treatment of seasonal affective disorder”, Journal of  Nutrition,  Health and Aging, 1999. Vitamin D Council, VitaminDCouncil.com.

 

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