How We Diagnose and Treat Seasonal Affective Disorder at the Raby Institute 

Winter’s coming, and different people feel the effects of darker days and colder weather differently. But for many people, the shift in weather leads to a feeling of depression. Holiday stressors play a role for some, too.

“Dark days, family dynamics, loneliness, and thinking back on your year can all contribute to seasonal depression and anxiety,” says Raby Institute Naturopath Kathy Chavez, ND.

Because this depression happens during a specific time of year, it’s called Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. Less sunlight in the fall and winter leads to a shift in circadian rhythms. Early morning sunlight no longer hits the retina, the nerve-rich back of the eye, shutting off production of melatonin.

Increased melatonin production decreases supplies of serotonin, resulting in the symptoms of SAD:

  • Depression

  • Anxiety

  • Irritability

  • Fatigue

  • Hypersomnia

  • Reduced libido

  • Increased appetite

  • Carb cravings

  • Weight gain

Less sunlight hitting the skin also means the body makes lower levels of vitamin D. Low vitamin D levels are also associated with SAD symptoms.

Studies show that between 15 and 25 percent of the population experiences SAD symptoms. People at greater risk for seasonal depression include:

  • Women

  • Young adults between ages 20 and 30

  • People with a history of depression or bipolar depression

  • People who live at higher latitudes

  • People with darker skin pigmentations

If you suspect that you’re experiencing seasonal depression and want to do something about it besides waiting for spring, make an appointment with Dr. Chavez.

Dr. Chavez will start your evaluation with a neurotransmitter test to get a better idea of what’s happening in your brain. This is a take-home urine test that analyzes levels of:

  • Serotonin

  • GABA

  • Glutamate

  • PEA

  • Dopamine

  • Norepinephrine

  • Epinephrine

Based on the results of the neurotransmitter analysis, she’ll make recommendations of ways you can balance the levels.

Your assessment might also include a thyroid test, as well as an analysis of your vitamin levels and micronutrients to see if you’re deficient in any vitamins such as vitamin D, which is clearly tied to depression symptoms.

Once Dr. Chavez has a better picture of what’s happening physiologically in your body, she may recommend you talk with a therapist (also available at the Raby Institute), take specific supplements, or make lifestyle changes.

The following lifestyle changes can alleviate seasonal depression:

  • Exercise: Physical activity increases endorphins and serotonin for improved mood and libido, and pushes blood flow to all tissues for increased energy

  • Diet: with less sun exposure during winter, diet provides another way to get vitamin D. Cold water fish like sardines, salmon, and tuna are the best sources, but shrimp, mushrooms, and sunflower foods also contain vitamin D. Dr. Chavez also will recommend eating a nutrient-rich diet to better regulate your body processes, as well as reducing sugar, which can make you feel slow and sluggish. Eating foods high in magnesium can help too, especially if you tend to feel anxious.

  • Aromatherapy: A safe, enjoyable way to reduce symptoms or SAD and anxiety. The olfactory tract transmits smells directly to the limbic system in the brain. The limbic system (hippocampus, amygdala, hypothalamus) is involved with emotional behavior and memory. Lavender, bergamot, and jasmine are great for reducing depression, while lavender, rose, orange, bergamot, lemon, sandalwood, and more are best for anxiety.

  • Talk therapy and biofeedback: Excellent for reducing anxiety and depression, these approaches can help you learn techniques to calm yourself. You’ll also start to recognize thought patterns and neurological pathways that may be contributing to your depression and anxiety.

Put your mental health first, and schedule an appointment at the Raby Institute this season. Call (312) 726-1212 to make an appointment, or learn more about Mind/Body Medicine at the Raby Institute.
"Let food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food."
- Hippocrates