6 Ways to Heal Seasonal Affective Disorder

While you may feel like the only one who feels depressive symptoms when winter rolls around, you’re not alone. Experts say over 40 million North Americans suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a mood disorder in which people who have normal mental health throughout most of the year experience depression in the winter months when the days are shorter, darker and rainier. Nearly 80 per cent of those suffering with SAD are women, however many children also experience it.

While the specific cause of SAD varies, the lack of sunlight can produce symptoms such as fatigue, oversleeping, overeating, carbohydrate cravings, mild depression, irritation and loss of pleasure and interest in life. Reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may disrupt the body’s internal “biological clock” (circadian rhythm) causing hormones, sleep and mood to be unbalanced. Melatonin seems to be one of the players in this imbalance as this hormone plays a role in sleep patterns and mood. A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical that affects mood, might also play a role in SAD as reduced sunlight can cause low serotonin levels, leading to feelings of depression.

The good news is that there are many simple and effective ways to ease symptoms of SAD. I’ve compiled my top six recommendations on how to beat the winter blues and return to feeling like yourself again:

1.Try light therapy

Light therapy is one of the easiest, non-invasive, and natural ways to treat SAD. Special light boxes which provide 10,000 lux are used to stimulate light exposure. The daily goal is 30 - 60 minutes of direct facial exposure in the morning, as this has the added bonus of resetting the circadian rhythm and stopping daytime melatonin secretion. Performed in this way, light therapy has been found to be as effective as fluoxetine (Prozac) in relieving SAD.

2. Make exercise a priority

Access your body’s natural medicine cabinet with physical activity. Exercise increases the body's production of endorphins, which are chemical substances that can relieve depression.

Although it can be difficult to stay motivated to exercise in the winter, your mental health will improve with a consistent movement routine. I recommend finding an exercise buddy to hold you accountable, and make it fun! Join a gym, climb stairs, walk at a mall, swim at an indoor pool, or sign up for one of the many fitness programs offered by your local community centre.

3. Incorporate natural supplements

It can be difficult to get all of our nutrition from our diets, especially if we’ve gotten out of our food prep routine. I recommend incorporating a few supplements to ensure that your body is getting the necessary vitamins and minerals to function optimally and combat the winter blues. Here are my suggestions:

  • Vitamin D - Research supports a connection between low vitamin D levels and SAD. Vitamin D, actually a hormone, needs UV B sun exposure in order to be processed in the body. I recommend a daily dose of at least 2000 IU of vitamin D3.
  • 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) - This supplement is the precursor to serotonin, and when taken orally helps increase serotonin levels in the brain to alleviate many SAD symptoms.
  • B vitamins - Effective in helping maintain adequate serotonin levels, I recommend finding a B-complex supplement that contains all the essential B vitamins such as thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, B6, B12, folic acid and pantothenic acid (B5).
  • St. John’s Wort - This supplement has been shown to have a positive effect on serotonin, dopamine and melatonin, which helps to improve symptoms of SAD and depression. Although St. John’s Wort extract is effective on its own, when combined with light therapy there seems to be an even more significant improvement in symptoms of SAD and depression.

Note: St. John’s Wort interacts with many medications so please seek the guidance of a licensed health care provider before taking this herb.

  • Melatonin - The body produces more melatonin when it is dark and decreases the production when it is light. Melatonin supplementation may relieve the symptoms of SAD because it increases brain melatonin levels as well as suppresses cortisol secretion.Take melatonin 30-45 minutes before bedtime.
  • Omega 3 fatty acids – Fish oils have been shown to be deficient in people who suffer from SAD. Omega-3s are important for all around brain function, inflammation, skin/hair/nails and heart health. Be sure to find a pharmaceutical grade omega-3 fatty acid free of all impurities and dose at least 800 mg of EPA/400 mg DHA per day.

4. Regulate blood sugar

Bingeing on carbohydrates can aggravate feelings of depression by altering blood sugar levels. Try eating smaller and more frequent meals to regulate blood sugar, and incorporate healthy protein sources such as organic free-range meats, nuts, seeds and legumes. Rather than eating simple carbohydrates like white flours and refined sugars, choose complex carbohydrates such as fruits, whole grains and vegetables as they contain more fibre and digest slower.

5. Support your adrenal glands

Your adrenal glands are two small glands that sit on top of each kidney. These glands have a lot of responsibility; they control sleep, appetite, mood and the body’s ability to cope with stress. In some cases, SAD is caused by increased secretion of cortisol by the adrenal glands. To support the adrenal glands, incorporate adaptogens in your diet, such as Siberian ginseng, Rhodiola, and Ashwagandha, and boost your B vitamins.

6. Make time for yourself

Often we are the last person on our priority list, however it’s crucial to take time for ourselves when looking after our mental health.

Make it a goal to take a few minutes for yourself every day, whether that’s starting your morning with reading a book in bed, taking a walk on your lunch break, talking to a friend that makes you laugh, or exercising your creativity with an artistic hobby you love. Making your relationship with yourself more important will impact your overall sense of well-being, reduce stress, and improve your mood.

 Dr. Marita Schauch, ND