Natural Treatment for Depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder

by Gayle Eversole, CRNP, PhD, AHG, DHo
Light is important for all living things. With autumn we experience equal hours of darkness and daylight. Light continues to shorten dramatically until winter solstice when daylight in Moscow is just over eight hours each day.

Less light brings hibernation naturally. During fall and winter the lack of light causes about 20% of people to experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). In northern latitudes incidence can be up to 10%. Closer to the equator it drops to 1-2 %.

First reports of SAD appeared in the 19th Century, but it was not until 1984 that it surfaced in psychiatry. Seasonal Affective Disorder, a type of depression reoccurring at specific times of the year, is still frequently misdiagnosed. Most commonly, the onset of depression begins in September through November, and lessens in March through May. SAD affects men, women, children, and even pets.

Medical treatment relies on anti-depressant drugs. The newer drugs, called serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI), come with many side effects, and studies show they do little to help. Recent studies at Harvard Medical School clearly show that essential fatty acids from flax, fish, and some plants are more effective than SSRI drugs. Another accepted treatment is the light box. A study at the University of British Columbia showed that supplementing with tryptophan (found in nutritional yeast or 5 HTP) and vitamin D3, along with morning light therapy, achieved a 64% improvement in symptoms. Light hungry sufferers seeking relief from symptoms that affect mind, body, and their internal body clock instinctively seek more light. Bright light therapy is a fluorescent light box that produces an intensity of 2,500 to 10,000 lux at a comfortable distance (1-2′). 85% of sufferers usually respond to this treatment within 3-5 days. Dawn stimulators are another type of light therapy that is helpful, as is changing all lighting at home and office to full spectrum bulbs and tubes. (You’ll find these at Tri-State) Accompanying difficulties with sleep is related to suppression of the hormone melatonin. You can get this naturally in nutritional yeast or by mixing ¼ cup ricotta cheese with dark cherries. I do not encourage synthetic hormone supplementation.

St. John’s Wort is useful in treating SAD. Hyla Cass, MD recommends St. John’s Wort to promote restful sleep and enhance dreaming.

A study in 1993 shows that St. John’s Wort improved the condition of those who regularly experience winter depression. The extract has been thoroughly researched as a natural anti-depressant. A total of 1,592 patients have been studied in 25 double-blind controlled studies. The studies show St. John’s Wort produces improvements in anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbances, and without side effects. Use organic, whole herb extracts for the best results.

Other helpful natural remedies for SAD include color, sound, homeopathy, flower essences, and essential oils. In Ayurvedic medicine you might find that carrying a quartz crystal is recommended.

Warm colors of yellow, orange, and red stimulate mood in color baths, lighting, room decor and clothing. People with hypertension should avoid too much red. These same colors in food provide anti-oxidants that reduce the effects mood swings brought on by allergies. Other research has found that using a negative air ionizer to lessen indoor allergies helps reduce mood swings.

Gustav Holst’s compositions Mars and Jupiter, from The Planets, are examples of music that helps alleviate depression.

In classical homeopathy, using cell salts of Mag Phos, Kali Phos, or Nat Mur, offers relief from depression, depending on symptoms. The flower essence of Mustard lifts the shadow of gloom from the light and joy of life.

Jasmine essential oil is anti-depressant and euphoric. It stimulates beta brain wave activity as measured by EEG. You might also enjoy using citrus oils that stimulate the autonomic nervous system, such as lemon.

I’ve always suggested walking and laughing. You’ll get mood lifting exercise, walking just 20 minutes at noon, even on dark days. This also supplies enough natural light to stimulate the pineal gland to set your body clock, and promote vitamin D production in skin. Laughing always stimulates endorphins; those neurotransmitters that make us feel good.