Along with the waning light of the winter season, millions of people start to lose their positive outlook on life at this time of year. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is associated with a type of depression colloquially known as the “winter blues.” Many of its symptoms mirror the kinds of feelings—both physical and psychological—that people experience during other types of depressive episodes.
According to Psychology Today, seasonal affective disorder symptoms may include:
- Feelings of hopelessness and sadness
- A tendency to oversleep
- A change in appetite, especially a craving for sweet or starchy foods
- Weight gain
- A heavy feeling in the arms or legs
- Low energy levels
- Difficulty concentrating
- Avoiding social situations
Unlike other types of depressive disorders, the symptoms related to SAD are specifically associated with the onset of the winter season. We spoke to HelloMD’s Dr. Richard Kim to discuss SAD and how to use cannabidiol (CBD) to help modulate its symptoms.
Seasonal Affective Disorder: A Serotonin Issue
“The causes of SAD aren’t fully understood. However, recent research suggests that people with SAD regulate serotonin differently in comparison to others,” Dr. Kim notes.
Folks with depression usually understand the important role of the serotonin reuptake system in the brain. Those with an improperly functioning serotonin reuptake mechanism may be more vulnerable to seasonal depressive symptoms.
“In a 2016 study, researchers found that those with SAD had increased serotonin transporter (SERT) activity during the autumn and winter months, in comparison to those without SAD. Higher SERT activity results in lower amounts of serotonin available to bind the subtype of serotonin receptor (5-HT1A) responsible for serotonin’s antidepressant effects,” Dr. Kim explains.
Doctors and researchers have prescribed antidepressants for decades to help with the regulation of the serotonin system.
“Restoring activity in serotonin pathways by increasing the serotonin available to bind the 5-HT1A receptor in the brain is how antidepressant medications like SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are thought to alleviate anxiety and depression. In fact, these medicines do so by inhibiting the aforementioned SERT,” says Dr. Kim.
How CBD Affects Serotonin Levels in the Brain
Countless cannabis consumers have been forced to rely on anecdotal, word-of-mouth evidence to help treat a variety of conditions. For many, taking cannabis containing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) doesn’t provide relief for depressive or anxiety-related conditions. In fact, for some, psychoactive cannabis has been found to increase levels of psychological discomfort.
However, with the explosion in the use of hemp-derived CBD, which doesn’t make consumers experience a high like THC does, studies are confirming that CBD can be a powerful tool for coping with both anxiety and depression.
“Several recently published studies suggest that CBD reduces depression and anxiety symptoms similarly to how SSRIs do.
“However, CBD does so not by increasing the serotonin available to bind 5-HT1A receptors as SSRIs do, but by mimicking serotonin’s action at the receptor. In scientific terms, CBD is what’s called a 5-HT1A receptor agonist,” Dr. Kim explains.
A 2016 report published in Neuropharmacology stated that CBD use induced “rapid-acting antidepressant-like effects” in people suffering with depression.
Taking CBD to Ease SAD
Before beginning any cannabis-related treatments, it’s crucial to receive a correct diagnosis from your doctor. Depressive symptoms for conditions such as SAD can mimic symptoms of other serious conditions such as thyroid disorders.
Doctors treating patients for SAD often recommend a combination of medical and lifestyle modifications, which can include:
- A healthy diet
- Light therapy
- Prescription medication
And most importantly: It’s essential to seek medical attention if your depressive symptoms include thoughts of self-harm or suicide; in this case, receiving immediate medical care is imperative.
When taking CBD to treat any condition, finding the correct dosage is important. Many people don’t derive the benefits of cannabis therapy simply because they aren’t taking enough CBD to affect their condition. This is why it’s important to secure a medical cannabis recommendation from a trusted, cannabis-knowledgeable doctor like Dr. Kim.
“For most patients, I recommend taking 10–20 milligrams of CBD, two to three times per day, in addition to light therapy,” says Dr. Kim.
“People with SAD may also produce less vitamin D, which is also believed to play a role in serotonin activity. A 1999 study concluded that improvement in vitamin D levels was significantly associated with improvement in a patient’s depression scale. I recommend taking 5,000 international units of vitamin D3—not D2—each day,” Dr. Kim advises.
It’s also essential to use CBD products that are produced by trusted sources. You should also do your own research to determine the type of CBD product that fits your lifestyle and personal preference.
For those on the go, a single-serve candy may be the easiest way to incorporate CBD into your wellness regime. For others, a sublingual spray provides the fastest delivery system for rapid symptom reduction. The best part of experimenting with CBD therapy is that there are virtually no side effects. And there’s no evidence that the use of CBD interferes with the use of antidepressant medications.
With the passing of the winter solstice, every day lengthens as the light returns. But if you’re still feeling under a dark cloud of seasonal depression, don’t be afraid to ask your doctor if CBD may gently and safely ease your winter blues.
Photo credit: Diana Parkhouse
Want to try CBD, but don’t know where to start? Shop our selection of high-quality, lab-tested CBD products and have them shipped to your door. And if you have questions about CBD, ask them and our community will answer.