The long, dark nights of winter are upon us. The end of daylight savings time, the beginning of fall, and a drop in temperatures all mean people are spending more time indoors and less time out in the sun. As a result, many people notice a drop in mood as well as their overall sense of well-being during the winter months. While friends and family are enjoying the holidays, as many as 14 percent of people in the US admit to feeling down during the winter, and around six percent have symptoms associated with clinical depression.
These symptoms usually begin to manifest in autumn or early winter and improve as the days become longer and temperatures rise in the spring. This phenomenon is called Seasonal Affective Disorder and is a form of depression.
Seasonal Affective Disorder Explained
Seasonal Affective Disorder, known by the apt acronym SAD, is a type of depression that develops seasonally, as the days become shorter and the weather becomes colder. Affecting approximately five percent of people, SAD presents similarly to other depressive disorders: lethargy, insomnia, decreased appetite or weight gain, lack of focus, loss of interest in favorite activities, feelings of sadness or hopelessness. The only difference between SAD and major depressive disorder (MDD) is the time-frame. Symptoms usually begin in fall or winter and improve as spring approaches, whereas MDD happens any time, without bias to weather or seasons.
Researchers aren’t clear on what exactly causes SAD, but they believe it’s related to the decrease in vitamin d, serotonin, and melatonin production caused by shorter days and therefore, less exposure to sunlight. People who live in tropical and sub-tropical climates, where days are longer, are less likely to be affected than those who reside farther north. Likewise, young people, women, people who live with bipolar and other mental health issues, and those with a family history of depression are at higher risk for seasonal affective disorder than others.
What Can You Do about It?
If you live with SAD, there’s no need to suffer through the winter, waiting for the longer days of spring to find relief. There are things you can do at home to improve your symptoms, even in the dead of winter.
1. Light Therapy
Daylight simulating lightboxes are a must-have to ease seasonal depression. Light therapy boxes emit light similar to the sunlight we miss out on during the shorter days of winter. Chemicals in the brain, particularly melatonin, are stimulated by exposure to light, resulting in improved mood and better sleep. Light therapy boxes are commercially available, but you should consult with your health care provider before purchasing one. Some health insurance companies cover the cost associated with in-home light therapy, so check your policy to see if you qualify. Although there is limited research backing the benefits of light therapy for mood disorders, anecdotal evidence from users has shown a positive correlation between light therapy and improvement of symptoms.
2. Increase Exposure to Natural Daylight
Bundle up if it’s cold out and take a walk at lunch. All you need is 15-20 minutes a day of sunlight on your face to experience its mood-boosting benefits.
Can’t get outside? Open your curtains and blinds. Sit near windows whenever possible. By increasing your exposure to the sun’s own rays, you will enhance your mood and improve symptoms associated with SAD. Make the most out of those daylight hours, even though there are fewer of them to enjoy!
3. Dietary Supplementation
Including a few new supplements to your daily routine may also help alleviate symptoms associated with seasonal depression.
St John’s Wort
Traditional mood-elevators like St John’s Wort can help balance mood and increase feelings of well-being. Available over-the-counter in capsule form and tinctures, St John’s Wort is considered an invasive species in many parts of the United States, but it has been used successfully for generations as a support for mood disorders.
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An amino acid naturally occurring in your body, 5-hydroxytryptophan, or 5-HTP, is important in the body’s regulation and use of serotonin. Decreased serotonin can be related to depression, insomnia, and other symptoms and is commonly thought to be one of the main triggers for SAD. Supplementary 5-HTP is extracted from the seeds of a plant native to Africa called Griffonia. Adding 5-HTP can aid in the body’s ability to produce and use serotonin and result in a decrease of SAD symptoms.
Our bodies synthesize vitamin d after sun exposure. A decrease in vitamin D during fall and winter has been linked to depression and seasonal affective disorder, and studies have shown that vitamin D supplementation during periods of decreased sun exposure can improve symptoms associated with SAD. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, so to ensure adequate absorption it should be taken with a meal or a teaspoon of healthy fat like flaxseed oil.
4. Maintain a Regular Sleep Schedule
Often, people with SAD have difficulty sleeping—either too much or too little. By adhering to a regular sleep schedule, your body learns when it can expect light and begins to wind down when it gets dark, which will help you sleep better at night. To maximize your shut-eye, try to go to bed at the same time each night and wake at the same time each morning. Research repeatedly shows that a good night’s sleep is associated with improvements in mood for all types of depression, including SAD.
One final note: If your depression symptoms linger despite natural, coping strategies, conventional medical treatment with antidepressants is also an option for SAD. Please consult with your healthcare provider if you show signs associated with depression or SAD before beginning a treatment protocol.
Kristi Pahr is a freelance health and wellness writer and mother of two who spends most of her time caring for people other than herself. She is frequently exhausted and compensates with an intense caffeine addiction. Her work has appeared in Good Housekeeping, Real Simple, Men’s Health, and many others
Q&A on Bright Light Therapy. Columbia University website. http://www.columbia.edu/~mt12/blt.htm
Melrose S. Seasonal Affective Disorder: An Overview of Assessment and Treatment Approaches. Depression Research and Treatment. 2015;2015:178564. doi: 10.1155/2015/178564.
Seasonal Affective Disorder. National Institute of Mental Health website. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/seasonal-affective-disorder/index.shtml
St. John’s Wort Relieves Symptoms Of Major Depression, Study Shows. Science Daily website. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/10/081007192435.htm