Seasonal Affective Disorder: Seasonal depression is a well-documented occurrence and very common in areas of the world with colder, shorter days. Today we explore a handful of simple ways to prevent seasonal depression using the wisdom of nature. You don’t need to be one of the 10 million Americans formally diagnosed to reap the benefits of implementing the natural remedies below. So act preventatively, and support your body through long winters for vibrant health!
This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Charles Penick, MD
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), or the winter blues is more than just a widespread saying; it is an actual recognized psychiatric diagnosis known as Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern. This seasonal-based mood disorder typically falls in the colder months, prompted by shorter daylight hours and less sunlight in winter. It typically begins in the fall and winter months and usually improves with the arrival of spring. However, for some people, the symptoms linger well into summer 1.
The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder vary depending on the individual’s severity. It includes symptoms like 1
- Feeling sad or lower mood than usual for no apparent reason
- Loss of interest in pleasures of life
- Changes in appetite (too much or too little)
- Loss of energy, especially waking up tired
- Loss of interest in exercise
- Low self-worth
- Difficulty thinking, concentrating or making even simple decisions
- Suicidal ideations
When to Seek Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder?
A formal psychiatric diagnosis typically occurs only once you are several affected, like most medical diagnoses. Whether or not you have hit rock bottom when it comes to SAD, essentially everyone who lives in a colder-winter climate will benefit from the natural remedies mentioned in this article.
In America, the concentration of individuals dealing with bad cases of the winter blues tends to live in colder climates since this disorder typically results from shorter days and less sunlight. Therefore, the natural remedies for SAD will benefit anyone, no matter how bad the severity of your case may have gotten.
We as a culture should strive to mitigate illness when it is in its infancy stages. Don’t wait until you need to be formally diagnosed with a disorder to address the impact that long winters may have on your mental and physical health!
Natural Ways to Overcome Seasonal Affective Disorder
Sometimes pharmaceutical medicine can play a life-saving role in someone’s life. There are, however, so many tips and tools that come straight from nature that we can implement to support our bodies without some of the side effects of modern medicine.
Anyone of any age can use these natural ways to overcome the winter blues to naturally support circadian health and promote healthy, happy hormones throughout long winters.
1. Light Exposure
Light therapy is one of the most profound natural ways to fight seasonal depression 2. The reason is that we humans tend to stick to our regularly scheduled life (exercise, work, and such), even in the months with shorter days. So naturally, we would be sleeping more during this time of year! We are naturally programmed to wake with the sun, so setting your alarm clock for the same time as during the summer months and waking up in the dark can take a toll on your mental health.
In this case, light therapy essentially exposes your eyes and face to a special lightbox or cap first thing in the morning. It will mimic daylight by exposing you to the same blue light you would usually see if it was daytime. A typical recommended morning light dose is about 30 minutes 2. You can simply set up the lightbox near your face in the morning and go about your morning routine; if your routine requires lots of moving around, you may consider a light cap you can wear on your head that moves around with you.
Light therapy has been shown to help about 70 percent of those suffering from SAD in just a few weeks of exposure 3. You won’t suddenly snap out of it, so make sure to give light therapy a chance to work with consistent daily exposure for a few weeks!
2. Vitamin D
Vitamin D is a crucial nutrient that behaves like a hormone in the body. It is responsible for many processes in the body that can influence mood, including regulating insulin levels and supporting the nervous system 4-5. However, since there is typically less or no vitamin D available in the fall and winter months, getting enough sunlight alone can be tricky.
Even in the summer months, most Americans do not get enough sun exposure to synthesize vitamin D. Since we do not make vitamin D without sun exposure, it becomes essential to supplement during the fall and winter months 6.
You can get vitamin D during the winter in 3 key ways:
- Through UV lamps (tanning beds)
- Through foods (like wild-caught fatty fish)
- Through a supplement
Since there are few sources of vitamin D-rich foods, getting consistent exposure to UV lamps and supplementation will probably be required. A high-quality vitamin D supplement is often combined with a K2 for better absorption. Vitamin D is safe to take even in relatively high doses daily. Consider adding a supplement to your daily routine during the fall and winter months to help beat the seasonal blues.
Movement is medicine, and regular exercise is linked to many incredible mood-boosting benefits 7. Regular exercise is one of the most effective ways of improving your mood, no matter the reason behind the low mood. Various kinds of exercise show benefits, and finding the right style for you depends on where you’re at and what is sustainable in your day-to-day life. The key is consistency!
- High-intensity intervals: HIIT exercise is well documented to improve mood. Even a short burst of intervals can lead to a surge in BDNF and mood-boosting endorphins 8.
- Yoga: Yoga and mindfulness practices like tai chi or qi gong are also associated with mood-boosting benefits. Despite the more relaxed nature of this kind of movement, mindfulness practices are linked to positive effects on mood and anxiety. However, for some people, intense exercise may be too depleting, and in this case, starting with gentle movement can be better suited 9.
- Walking: last but not least, walking is a highly underrated form of movement that can profoundly benefit your mood. Going for a walk, especially if it’s somewhere with lots of nature, can dramatically shift your mindset. Walking after meals is a great way to balance out your blood sugar, which can help prevent the drop in mood that comes from a spike and subsequent drop in blood sugar. A simple 10-minute stroll after meals is all it takes 10.
4. Human Contact
One of the seasonal affective disorder symptoms is a lack of desire to interact with other people or turn yourself into a winter hermit. The thought of socializing may be the last thing on your list if you’re feeling SAD, but it may be an essential factor in helping you recover!
In the right context, socializing is linked to an incredible boost in mental and physical health 11. We are social creatures, and although it may seem attractive to hibernate the winter away, a lack of meaningful social interactions can affect your well-being.
The key is not overwhelming yourself with massive social engagements but making the interactions more intimate and meaningful. We have been mainly isolated in the past few years, but human contact and connection are essential. Consider joining a social group that meets regularly through a shared hobby, a religious organization, or a team sport.
Human touch can also play a massive role in supporting mental health. Consider getting a semi-regular massage if you do not have family or a romantic partner or are not regularly spending time hugging your friends. Skin-to-skin contact with another human has been shown to alleviate anxiety and depression 12.
The food you eat plays a significant role in generating well-being or disease. It may be tempting to cozy up at home by loading up on simple carbs for the instant gratification of dopamine. Still, this can lead to increased inflammation and even more mood-destabilizing effects in the long run.
Stick to whole foods and a balanced diet. It seems obvious, but avoiding junk food is crucial for mental health. Carbs are not the enemy; refined foods are. So stay away from heavily processed foods like vegetable oils, processed sugar, and wheat-based flour. Instead, focus on fat and protein to satiate you and promote balanced blood sugars. Big spikes and drops in insulin promote roller-coaster-like moods and make you even more inclined to binge on the bad stuff.
6. Mood-Boosting Supplements
Supplements can not be the first course of action, but they can offer a great bridge to support your body during times of higher stress. Some of the best supplements to help your body while it is experiencing seasonal depression include:
- St. John’s Wort: is one of the most commonly used natural supplements to alleviate depression. It works well in conjunction with light therapy 13.
- 5-HTP: 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is an inexpensive nutrient supplement from an African bean that helps increase brain serotonin levels 14.
- Tyrosine: Tyrosine is a precursor for catecholamines, which boost mood. Tyrosine is so effective in reversing stress’s physiological and mental impact that the US military uses it 15.
The winter blues are more formally diagnosed as seasonal affective disorder, a condition that affects millions of Americans. But, whether you get it bad or mild, the natural solutions to mitigate SAD can help everyone feel better. They include using a lightbox for about 30 minutes every morning, getting enough vitamin D through food, UV lamps, and supplementation, moving your body regularly, enough human contact, a healthy diet, and considering mood-boosting supplements like St. John’s Wort, 5-HTP, and tyrosine.
Medical Disclaimer: The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice. It is intended to share knowledge and information. This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Charles Penick, MD, for accuracy of the information provided, but we encourage you to make your own healthcare decisions based upon your research and in partnership with a qualified healthcare professional.
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- Al-Shoumer, Kamal As, and Thamer M Al-Essa. “Is there a relationship between vitamin D and insulin resistance and diabetes mellitus?.” World journal of diabetes vol. 6,8 (2015): 1057-64. doi:10.4239/wjd.v6.i8.1057
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- “New Study Finds New Connection between Yoga and Mood.” ScienceDaily, ScienceDaily, 23 Aug. 2010, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/08/100819112124.htm.
- Fritz, T, and U Rosenqvist. “Walking for exercise – immediate effect on blood glucose levels in type 2 diabetes.” Scandinavian journal of primary health care vol. 19,1 (2001): 31-3.
- “Mayo Clinic Minute: The Benefits of Being Socially Connected – Mayo Clinic News Network.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 19 Apr. 2019, https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/mayo-clinic-minute-the-benefits-of-being-socially-connected/.
- “Benefits of Human Touch: What Is the Impact on Our Health?” HCF, https://www.hcf.com.au/health-agenda/body-mind/mental-health/benefit-human-touch.
- “St. John’s Wort.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 13 Feb. 2021, https://www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements-st-johns-wort/art-20362212.
- Ross, Julia. The Mood Cure: the 4-Step Program to Rebalance Your Emotional Chemistry and Rediscover Your Natural Sense of Well-Being. Viking, 2004.
- “Tyrosine.” Mount Sinai Health System, https://www.mountsinai.org/health-library/supplement/tyrosine.