Do you have S.A.D.? – Issue 22

Do you have S.A.D.?

Pharmacist Kevin Leivers discusses how vegan food and supplements can help prevent this winter illness

January is officially the saddest month of the year, when overindulgence combines with the lack of sunlight and warmth to create a perfect storm on body and mind. However, this dip in mood and energy starts well before the New Year.

It’s not all doom and gloom though, because scientific research into functional nutrition is providing welcome relief for the millions of sufferers of this condition. Go back 20 years, and the concept of mind/body medicine was dismissed by mainstream practitioners. Fast forward to the present day and the majority of professionals accept that mindfulness and meditation can have significant health benefits for cardiovascular and mental health. Similar attitudes have slowed the introduction of new food–based approaches to maintaining good health and treating disease, including those for S.A.D. or seasonal affective disorder.

What is S.A.D.?
S.A.D. is a depressive illness caused by shortened daylight hours and a lack of sunlight.

How many people have S.A.D.?
For about 21 per cent of the UK population, some of the symptoms of S.A.D. cause discomfort and a noticeable change in mood. This is called ‘sub–syndromal S.A.D.’ or ‘winter blues’.

For a further eight per cent, S.A.D. is a much more serious illness which can prevent normal daily function without appropriate treatment.

What are the symptoms of S.A.D.?

  • a persistent low mood
  • a loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities
  • irritability
  • feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness
  • feeling lethargic (lacking in energy) and sleepy during the day
  • sleeping for longer than normal and finding it hard to get up in the morning
  • craving carbohydrates and gaining weight

What Causes S.A.D.?
One theory holds that the increased hours of darkness disrupt the brain chemicals that affect mood, such as serotonin and melatonin. Some experts believe reduced sunlight causes vitamin D deficiencies – but whether that translates into depression is not entirely clear. There have been conflicting studies on whether there’s a causal connection between low vitamin D levels and depression. While light therapy appears to be one of the most effective treatments for S.A.D., what you eat can also play a role in alleviating its symptoms. Of course, as with any medical issue, talk with your doctor about treatments if you’re dealing with any kind of depression.

How can S.A.D. be treated?
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends that S.A.D. should be treated in the same way as other types of depression. The symptoms of S.A.D. can be improved through a combination of different techniques including light therapy, psychosocial treatments including cognitive behavioural therapy and counselling, and lastly, antidepressants. However, there are many steps you can take yourself, including regularly exercising and consuming a healthy, balanced diet (which is generally the case for vegans).

Vegan Foods and supplements for S.A.D. symptoms

‘Superfood’ Supplements – saffron and turmeric
Recent clinical research in Spain and Australia has shown that 30mg a day of 3.5 per cent strength saffron can help psychological balance, nervousness, and improve sleep patterns. Saffrosun is the only vegan–friendly supplement available that contains 3.5 per cent strength of saffron along with vitamins B6, B12 and D3.

There is also a significant amount of research supporting the benefits of turmeric for balancing mood. You should take a daily supplement of turmeric high in curcuminoids (95 per cent, minimum 350mg), that also contains black pepper extract which significantly improves absorption. (I recommend Natruflex, from The Naked Pharmacy, with 95 per cent turmeric and black pepper).

Vitamin supplements
Modern lifestyles and farming practices are contributing to significant deficiencies in important vitamins and minerals. Research at the University of Surrey has shown that over 50 per cent of the population has insufficient intake of vitamin D, so choosing the most effective version, vitamin D3, in a supplement, can have significant health benefits.

Low levels of some B vitamins are associated with depression. Vitamin B12 is one of the most important of these and can be obtained from taking a good quality vitamin B complex supplement. Vegan–friendly non–dairy milks and cereals are also generally fortified with vitamin B12.

Foods rich in omega 3
Omega–3–fatty acids have been found to influence mood and help with symptoms of depression. They also help maintain healthy levels of serotonin and another brain chemical, dopamine. High levels of omega–3 fatty acids are found in flax seeds, walnuts, hemp, chia and seaweed.

Foods rich in folic acid
Folic acid can boost mood by helping the body create serotonin. High amounts of folic acid can be found in leafy greens, sunflower seeds, oranges, oats, lentils and beans. Dark green, leafy veggies such as asparagus, Brussels sprouts and spinach are also high in folate, a B vitamin that can help depression by raising the levels of norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine.

Tyrosine rich foods
The NHS recommends 50g of protein daily for adults. Vegan proteins contain important amino acids such as tyrosine which can positively affect the levels of norepinephrine and dopamine in the brain. Foods high in tyrosine include adzuki beans and raw oats.

If you are concerned about your health, please visit your GP. This article is not intended as a substitute for medical advice.


The lifestyle magazine written by vegans for vegans.