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With the government now recommending Vitamin D supplements for everyone, we take a look at the link between SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) and the benefits of Vitamin D supplementation, to prepare for the onset of winter and changes of the seasons.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression that is associated with late autumn and winter months. It is estimated that 20 million people within the UK are diagnosed with SAD, 75% of these being women. The condition is believed to be caused by a lack of light, particularly affecting countries further away from the equator, such as the UK. The theory behind SAD, is that shorter days equate to less sunlight causing lesser degree of the neurotransmitter serotonin as it is converted to melatonin to encourage sleep.
Is there a difference between having the winter blues, and actually being diagnosed with SAD?
Yes there is a difference between the two. Between September and March many people experience symptoms of the ‘winter blues’ which include a dislike of dark mornings, having shorter days, eating more and getting up in the morning, all which people find more of an uphill struggle. However, when experiencing SAD these feelings are heightened and additional symptoms can be experienced including:
Is there anything we can do to prepare for the onset of winter to avoid suffering when the winter hits – looking at both diet and lifestyle?
Before the winter months approach, it may be worth getting your vitamin D status checked by the doctor, as a low vitamin D status has been associated with poor immunity, anxiety and depression throughout the winter season. The government now advise that everyone take vitamin D supplements during autumn and winter as receiving enough vitamin D through diet alone is unlikely. It is also recommended that those who have little exposure to the sun, cover their skin outside or are from an African, Asian or Caribbean background should supplement throughout the year to ensure they are getting enough vitamin D.
Ensuring a healthy diet is in place may have its benefits as a biological increase of melatonin during the winter months may increase ghrelin (the ‘hunger hormone’). Ghrelin when concentrated in blood plasma levels may over stimulate the appetite and encourage social avoidance. Therefore, maintaining a blood sugar balance in a tight equilibrium from a diet rich in protein and low in refined carbohydrates may sustain energy levels, support mood and help with satiety. An example of nutrient dense foods to include could be oily fish, nuts, seeds avocado and spirulina to provide essential fatty acids to support brain tissue integrity and hormonal levels, and amino acid l-tryptohphan , a precursor to serotonin.
As well as having a good level of fats and proteins soluble and insoluble fibres and probiotics are important to support the removal of toxins through the digestive tract. Peristalsis during the winter may become less frequent due to low serotonin levels, therefore supporting and building up a healthy gut biota is preferable for the first line of defence in immunity, energy levels and healthy neurotransmitter response through gut B vitamin synthesis.
What can we do during the winter months to try and overcome SAD, especially when people when feel less inclined to be outside?
Vitamin D is synthesized by humans in the skin from 7-Dehydrocholesterol upon exposure to ultraviolet-B radiation from sunlight. Low blood status of vitamin D levels in winter is linked with poor immunity, depression and anxiety. Taking a winter holiday close to the equator for the sun to boost serotonin and vitamin D levels may help improve mood and energy.
When in the UK exercise inside first to encourage endorphins and then take the last half of your fitness regime outside. By going outside you will be naturally boosting serotonin through daylight to support a healthy mood.
Vitamin D Serum calcidiol levels do not plateau until after 3-4 months of supplementation, so short term supplementation may not correct low levels sufficiently. Long term supplementation is required at high intake and safety data suggests this can be at levels of at least 1000iu per day.
Omega-3 and 6 fatty acids to help support cognitive function, nervous system and hormonal integrity.
B vitamins are required for the release of energy from food, for the healthy function of the nervous system and for the production of hormones.
Probiotics to encourage a healthy gut flora to support the elimination and nutrient absorption process that may have been affected by low levels of serotonin.
5-HTP is a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin and therefore it may help regulate mood and memory.