Oct
26
2013

Being SAD in Fall (Seasonal Affective Disorders)

Any general practitioner knows that fall and winter are the time when patients come in with a variety of complaints like a lack of energy, problems sleeping, inability to cope with stress, but often there may be non-specific pains like muscle spasm in the back, the shoulders, or indigestion. These symptoms can all be part of seasonal affective disorders (SAD) like depression, the winter blues, often coupled with anxiety.

Emotional health does not fit easily into our health care model. The receptionist will warn the doctor that this is going to be a “difficult” patient. If the doctor has only time for a 5 or 10-minute visit, where only one or two problems can be dealt with, then this does not fit when a patient with SAD has a problem concentrating, falling asleep, and presents with a long list of other complaints. Even 20 minutes or 30 minutes may not be enough to deal with this patient adequately. It is easier to send the patient for tests and to prescribe an antidepressant and a sleeping pill and reschedule for a follow-up appointment. But this likely will result in normal blood tests and investigations, added health care costs, but no solution to the patient’s problem when he  or she simply states “doctor, I feel so sick”.

I thought it would be interesting to review how our emotions can get out of balance and review an integrative approach to SAD.

Definition of SAD

Seasonal depression (also called seasonal affective disorder) occurs during fall (autumn) and winter, but this alternates with no depressive episodes during spring and summer. A person defined to suffer from SAD would have suffered from two major depressive episodes during the past 2 years with no depressive episodes in the intervening seasons of spring and summer (Ref.1). Alternative names for SAD are winter depression and wintertime blues. Typically SAD lasts about 5 months.

Brain hormone disbalance

Around 2002 it was detected that in mice there was a second light sensitive pathway from ganglion cells in the retina that were responsible for circadian hormone rhythms. This was later confirmed to be true also in humans, where photosensitive retinal ganglion cells buried deep in the retina and containing the pigment melanopsin absorb blue light in the visible light spectrum. The electrical signals are sent along the retinohypothalamic tract, so that light from the retina regulates the hormone circadian rhythm (daily hormone fluctuations including the sleep/wake cycle) in the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is one of the major hormone centers in the center of the brain. As this publication shows there are minor genetic sequence changes for the retinal photopigment, melanopsin in patients with SAD. This affects about 1 to 2% of the American population. Many more have probably partial defects in the function of this pigment.

Being SAD in Fall (Seasonal Affective Disorders)

Being SAD in Fall (Seasonal Affective Disorders)

Many hormones in our brain experience a circadian rhythm.

When the sun goes down, melatonin is produced making us sleepy. In the morning serotonin production goes up and stays up all day, which normally prevents depression. There are other hormones that cycle during the course of the day. Cortisol is highest in the morning and low in the evening and at night. Growth hormone and prolactin are highest during sleep.

There is a lack of serotonin in the brains of patients with SAD and depression.

Symptoms of SAD

A person affected by SAD or any other patient with ordinary depression will present with symptoms of lack of energy, with tearfulness, negative thought patterns, sleep disturbances, lack of appetite and weight loss and possible suicidal thoughts. On the other hand symptoms may be more atypical presenting with irritability and overindulging in food with weight gain. Some patients somaticize as already mentioned in the beginning of this review experiencing a multitude of functional symptoms without any demonstrable underlying disease. It is estimated that up to 30 to 40% of patients attending a general practitioner’s office have some form of depression and in the fall and winter season a large percentage of them are due to SAD.

Treatment approaches to SAD

There are several natural approaches to SAD. However, before deciding to go this route, a psychiatrist should assess the patient to determine the risk for suicide. When a patient is not suicidal, light therapy can be utilized.

1. Light therapy: According to Ref. 2 a light box from Sun Box or Northern Light Technologies should be used for 30 minutes every morning during the fall and winter months. The box should emit at least 10,000 lux. Improvement can occur within 2 to 4 days of starting light therapy, but often takes up to 4 weeks to reach its full benefit (Ref.2).

2. Exercise reduces the amount of depression. The more exercise is done the less depression remains. A regular gym workout, dancing, walking, aerobics and involvement in sports are all useful.

3. Folate and vitamin B12: Up to 1/3 of depressed people have folate deficiency. Supplementation with 400 mcg to 1 mg of folic acid is recommended. Vitamin B12 should also be taken to not mask a B12 deficiency (Ref.3). Folate and vitamin B12 are methyl donors for several brain neuropeptides.

4. Vitamin D3 supplementation: A large Dutch study showed that a high percentage of depressed patients above the age of 65 were deficient for vitamin D3. Supplementation with vitamin D3 is recommended. (Ref.3). Take 3000 to 4000 IU per day, particularly during the winter time.

5. St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) has been found useful for minor to moderate depression. It is superior in terms of having fewer side effects than standard antidepressant therapy (Ref.3).

6. Standard antidepressants (bupropion, fluoxetine, sertraline and paroxetine) are the treatment of choice by psychiatrists and treating physicians when a faster onset of the antidepressant effect is needed (Ref.3).

7. Electro acupuncture has been shown in many studies to be effective in ameliorating the symptoms of depression and seems to work through the release of neurotransmitters in the brain (Ref.4).

8. A balanced nutrition (Mediterranean type diet) including multiple vitamins and supplements (particularly the vitamin B group and omega-3 fatty acids) also stabilize a person’s mood (Ref.3). Pay particular attention to hidden sugar intake, as sugar consumption is responsible for a lot of depression found in the general population.

9. Restore sleep deprivation by adding melatonin 3 to 6 mg at bedtime. This helps also to restore the circadian hormone rhythm.

Conclusion

Seasonal affective disorder is triggered by a lack of light exposure in a sensitive subpopulation. An integrative approach as described can reduce the amount of antidepressants that would have been used in the past in treating this condition. This will reduce the amount of side effects. The use of a light box can reduce the symptoms of this type of depression within a few days. But the addition of electro acupuncture and St. John’s Wort may be all that is required for treatment of many SAD cases. Regular exercise and a balanced nutrition (with no sugar) and including vitamin supplements complete this treatment. If the depression gets worse, seek the advice of a psychiatrist and make sure your doctor has ordered thyroid tests and hormone tests to rule out other causes where depression is merely a secondary symptom.

More information on depression: http://nethealthbook.com/mental-illness-mental-disorders/mood-disorders/depression/

References

  1. Ferri: Ferri’s Clinical Advisor 2014, 1st ed. © 2013 Mosby.
  2. Cleveland Clinic: Current Clinical Medicine, 2nd ed. © 2010 Saunders.
  3. Rakel: Integrative Medicine, 3rd ed. © 2012 Saunders.
  4. George A. Ulett, M.D., Ph.D. and SongPing Han, B.M., Ph.D.: “The Biology of Acupuncture”, copyright 2002, Warren H. Green Inc., Saint Louis, Missouri, 63132 USA

Last edited Nov. 7, 2014

Aug
17
2013

Postpartum Depression

Recently there has been a lot of publicity around the topic of postpartum depression (PPD). Typically the reports originate from a case where depression led to catastrophic consequences. It is sad that it often takes a tragedy before a problem like this is publicly more acknowledged. But sadly reports are often one-sided and are missing vital information about preexisting risk factors that are frequently not picked up by the family doctor. There is often denial on behalf of the mother and family, the mother is getting no support from support groups, even though there are such groups. And swift treatment that would be available is often not given. The results are finally making headlines. Once a mother is desperate and deeply depressed (“psychotic depression”) she is capable of killing the baby, herself and others who are close. PPD affects 15% of mothers (Ref.1); a small percentage of them may have postpartum psychosis, which is the most severe form of PPD.

Risk factors for postpartum depression

In Ref. 1 several risk factors are reviewed that can lead to postpartum depression. For instance, a history of a major depressive episode or anxiety attacks during the pregnancy has been found among mothers who developed PPD. However, there may also have been a history of dysphoria (intense feeling of discontent) before her periods in the past; stressful events during the pregnancy or right after birth. Often there is poor social support or a marital conflict. Other factors are low income, young maternal age or immigrant status with deprivation. A lack of support from the partner can also be a major factor.

Up to 85% of women experience postpartum blues within the first 10 days after the delivery of the baby. Symptoms such as mood swings, fatigue, confusion, tearfulness, mild elation and irritability are common during these initial days following her delivery. Progesterone levels following delivery are decreased for at least one month, sometimes up to 3 months. This leads to sleep problems (insomnia), which coupled with the baby crying in the middle of the night causes more sleep disruption. Abnormal brain wave pattern have been documented on women following the birth of a child.

Only 1 in 500 mothers after birth develop what physicians call “postpartum psychosis”, which is a recognized psychiatric emergency.  The symptoms here are extreme mood swings with confusion, poor judgment, disordered thoughts (“delusions”), paranoia (where they think that someone is after them or it is the baby’s fault that they feel that way). Erratic behavior and impaired functioning are also part of this symptom complex. It is this state that needs to be monitored in a psychiatric unit as it is associated with a high suicide and homicide rate. A psychiatrist with experience in treating PPD needs to treat the patient.

Urbanization leads to a lack of support, which is particularly devastating to new mothers who need all the support they can get. This is reflected in a higher percentage of PPD in urban areas versus the percentage of PPD in more rural areas where there is more family support.

 

Postpartum Depression

Postpartum Depression

Hormone changes with postpartum depression

Some people would say that they couldn’t understand why a woman who just had a baby would not be happy and content. Most women are, but if the stress from the pregnancy and from childbearing were too much for the system, there is a point where the hormones are no longer balanced and the coping mechanisms are undermined.

Serotonin concentrations in the brain of women during pregnancy are kept at a higher level due to higher estrogen levels that slow down the degradation of serotonin. Serotonin is the brain hormone that makes you feel good. Estrogens and progesterone are very high during the pregnancy, but this changes right after the baby’s delivery and during the time of recovery in the first few days and weeks. Studies have shown that there was a 15% higher thyroid autoantibody rate in postpartum depression patients when compared to non-depressed postpartum mothers. This was weakly associated with postpartum depression and was responding favorably to thyroid replacement therapy. Progesterone levels were much lower in depressed and nondepressed patients following delivery because with the delivery the placental source of natural progesterone was removed. In a group of patients where progesterone was replaced, no significant improvement of PPD was observed, but they did not explain whether the progesterone replacement was done with bioidentical hormones or synthetic hormones.

Dr. Michael Platt described a case of a postpartum woman who was hypothyroid as well (Ref.2). She responded to hormone replacement with thyroid hormones and progesterone by shedding 60 pounds (she always had a weight problem) over 10 months changing from a size 20 to a size 4. She was able to wean herself off the anti-depressants. In breast feeding women this could be a significant difference as women on bioidentical progesterone can breast feed and will positively influence their breast fed child’s brain development (brain cells have a lot of progesterone receptors, which are stimulated by progesterone).

A recent Canadian study involving pregnant women and women after delivery of their babies showed that there was a significant drop of progesterone levels in saliva samples for several weeks, particularly with breast feeding. The authors explained that the lack of ovulation with a lack of progesterone synthesis in the ovaries was responsible for this. It takes several weeks for most women to regain regular menstrual cycles. It would follow from this that there is room for bioidentical progesterone replacement in the first few months of the postpartum period until the ovaries have resumed their normal cyclical hormone activity.

Conventional treatment for postpartum depression

With baby blues the symptoms are much less severe (compared to PPD) and are starting 2 to 3 days after childbirth, resolving spontaneously within 10 days after delivery. PPD occurs within 3 months following delivery and responds to treatment with antidepressants and psychotherapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy.  Breast feeding needs to be stopped, as it is known that metabolites of the antidepressants end up in breast milk. Typically, a less toxic antidepressant is used like paroxetine (Paxil), otherwise citalopram (Celexa), and fluoxetine (Prozac). In the rare cases where PPD is so severe that psychotic symptoms are present (postpartum psychosis) hospitalization is mandatory (Ref.3). Some of these cases may require electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and/or lithium treatment for mood stabilization. Thyroid hormone therapy has also shown a beneficial effect in treating antidepressant-resistant cases of PPD (Ref.4).

Alternative treatment of postpartum depression

Although review texts of the treatment of PPD mention that estrogen replacement in postnatal women with PPD was beneficial, there is a warning that this could cause blood clots and anticoagulant measures would have to be combined with this to prevent deep vein thrombosis; suggestions for progesterone replacement were mentioned, which is a treatment modality where blood clots are no danger, but formal trials have not been done, so it is being ignored by most medical professionals. Here is forum of women who have taken postpartum progesterone with positive effects.

Dr. Katherina Dalton published a trial involving 30 PPD patients with a positive response rate of 95% when treated with natural progesterone.

Before treatment patients were suffering from an average of 7.57 symptoms, after the treatment only 2.1 symptoms remained. (Figures with details regarding this study can be found under the above link).

There are many uncontrolled observations like this where natural progesterone creams are incorporated into a holistic approach to treating PPD. Dr. Mercola describes here how useful natural progesterone therapy can be. He also cautions that it should be taken cyclically to mimic nature’s biorhythm to allow progesterone receptors to recover in between treatments.

There are many websites that have useful information about natural progesterone cream treatment for PPD, such as this.

Conclusion

It is common sense that a woman may need natural progesterone following a delivery, because she just got rid of her placenta, which was a virtual progesterone factory protecting her body and the baby’s brain all throughout the pregnancy. Even if a woman decides to only use natural progesterone in a cyclical fashion for 3 to 6 months, the majority of women would not experience the baby blues or PPD. When regular menstrual cycles have been re established, the patient’s own ovarian progesterone production has resumed and progesterone cream is no longer needed until after the birth of  the next child or at the arrival of menopause. Medicine is full of examples where common sense was applied for effective treatment options despite missing randomized studies.

Natural progesterone treatment of PPD is one such example, where intuitively it was tried and it worked in many patients. Whether or not a randomized trial has been done does not concern the progesterone receptors (they just do not like the synthetic versions of progesterone, as they block the receptors leading to progesterone deficiency!).  Natural progesterone treatment can also be combined with traditional treatments of PPD.

More information on postpartum depression: http://nethealthbook.com/mental-illness-mental-disorders/mood-disorders/postpartum-depression/

References

1.Teri Pearlstein, MD, Margaret Howard, PhD, Amy Salisbury, PhD and Caron Zlotnick, PhD: “Postpartum depression” : American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology – Volume 200, Issue 4 (April 2009)

2. Dr. Michael E. Platt: The Miracle of Bio-Identical Hormones; 2nd edition, © 2007 Clancy Lane Publishing, Rancho Mirage, Ca/USA (p.53-55).

3. Bope & Kellerman: Conn’s Current Therapy 2013, 1st ed.© 2012 Saunders

4. Jacobson: Psychiatric Secrets, 2nd ed. © 2001 Hanley and Belfus

Last edited Nov. 7, 2014