Winter can be a gloomy and miserable time of year for us all with the stress of holiday time and a glut of colds and flu—but for some people, winter can cause clinical depression.
Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD for short, can rear its ugly head during winter’s short, dark days and make you feel ill, tired, lethargic, and depressed.
If you’re feeling the “winter blues” this year, you’re not alone. It’s thought that half a million Americans experience seasonal affective disorder.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal affective disorder is clinical depression brought on by the winter season.
It usually starts from November to December and peaks during January and February. Then, when spring arrives, the symptoms often lift. Many people experience a cyclical SAD pattern and begin to dread the winter months.
Women are more likely to suffer from SAD—three out of four people affected are women. It runs in families, and your location is a big factor. People living in northern areas are more affected than southerners.
Experts believe seasonal affective disorder comes down to a lack of sunlight.
We derive most of our vitamin D from sunlight because it’s pretty difficult to get it from food sources. Without enough sunlight, we can develop a vitamin D deficiency. This deficiency prevents the hypothalamus from working properly.
The hypothalamus regulates our natural circadian rhythms of sleep at night, along with the daylight, our appetites, and our moods. When it’s disrupted, it produces decreased levels of serotonin.
This happy hormone keeps us feeling good, and when it’s adversely affected, we can develop depression, stress, and anxiety. On top of this, a lack of vitamin D also increases melatonin, which promotes lethargy and sleep.
For some people, it can feel like winter is the time to hibernate.
Why Does SAD Occur?
Think about your daily life during the winter months. You probably get up and get dressed in the dark, head to work in an office, and head home in the dark to spend the evening indoors. Where does your essential dose of sunlight come from?
In the summer months, we naturally get sunlight on our skin as we walk around during lunch break, during the light evenings, and even on the commute—so seasonal affective disorder is rarely a problem. In the winter months, however, it’s a different story.
If you have some or all of the following—either mildly or severely—you may be experiencing seasonal affective disorder.
- Feeling depressed, miserable, and “down”
- Trouble sleeping despite feeling tired
- Lacking in energy
- Difficulty concentrating
- Lacking interest in life
- Weight changes
- Appetite changes
Some folks who suffer from SAD find that in the summer months, they have episodes of overexcitement or mania similar to bipolar disorder. This is brought on by an excess of sunlight.
8 Natural Ways to Relieve Seasonal Affective Disorder
Depression and stress during the holiday season are common for a number of reasons, but SAD is caused by lack of sunlight, so there are natural ways to fight it.
1. Get Outside
Missing sunlight is making you feel bad, so get outside as much as possible and grab what you can. Even if it’s overcast, you’re still soaking up the light.
If it’s warm enough, expose your forearms and look up from the grey sidewalk to the clouds.
Try sleeping with your curtains open and head out during your lunch break to chase the light. On weekends, go walking as much as you can. Natural light therapy can break the SAD cycle.
2. Buy or Hire a Lightbox
Lightboxes reduce symptoms by producing an intense light measured in “lux,” which simulates winter’s missing sunlight. It encourages your brain to produce more serotonin and less melatonin.
Lightboxes are readily available through your doctor—or you can buy them independently.
Some SAD patients use dawn-simulating alarm clocks, which gradually lighten the bedroom at a set time to help prepare them for the day.
3. Keep Exercising
Exercise helps beat depression by raising your feel-good hormones—including serotonin.
If you’re experiencing SAD, your serotonin levels are low—so bump them up with a workout. Swimming, walking, weight lifting, yoga, or cardio—it all counts.
Thirty minutes a day is enough to lift your mood and get those happy hormones flowing. It’ll also re-energize your circulation, strengthen muscles, and ease lower back pain.
The key is to exercise regularly rather than cramming in a two-hour session once a week.
4. Take a Supplement
Research shows that taking a vitamin D supplement is associated with reduced depression and may help fight the seasonal affective disorder.
Vitamin D also boosts your immune system, an essential in the cold and flu months, and strengthens bones again osteoporosis.
A relatively new supplement that may help fight SAD is cannabidiol (CBD). CBD is a compound derived from the cannabis plant.
CBD’s medical benefits are only recently being uncovered, but its capacity to alleviate bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, and stress by interacting with the body’s own neurotransmitters and endocannabinoid system means it may help treat SAD symptoms.
CBD can be taken as a tincture or pill—or it can be massaged onto the skin in the form of an infused oil.
5. Take a Break
If you’re able to head somewhere warm and sunny, do it!
Taking a winter break to a sunny location can lift your vitamin D levels naturally and provide stress relief from the holiday season. Just make sure you head outdoors rather than sitting in the spa.
6. Talk It Out
Folks with depression can find that it helps to talk about how they are feeling.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in particular helps SAD patients. Researchers think it’s because CBT gives patients coping tools that help them manage depression.
7. Improve Your Diet
A diet of salt, sugar, and fat from processed foods and snacks is detrimental to your physical and mental health.
It’s easy to develop vitamin deficiencies through a poor diet—especially in the winter when we crave comfort foods. But it’s important to keep your body on track with fruits, vegetables, whole-grain carbs, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Vitamin D is notoriously difficult to get from your diet, and your body can’t store it—but fortified cereals and fortified bread, eggs, leafy greens, nuts, and oily fish can boost vitamin D levels.
Another food source that can help fight SAD is tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid building block for serotonin. It’s found in the same foods as vitamin D, so you can see how important these foods are, especially during the winter.
8. Try to Enjoy Winter
Yes, winter is cold, dark, and wet, but that doesn’t mean you can’t go out and enjoy it.
Half the year is winter, and that’s a lot of time to spend feeling miserable. In fact, in Norway—where during winter, the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon at all—they hardly experience SAD. Try to celebrate winter by appreciating the fresh air, splashing puddles, and enjoying the cozy festive season.
You don’t have to fear winter; changing your mindset can make all the difference.
Fight SAD Naturally and Feel Better During Winter
If you experience the symptoms of SAD, you know it’s a miserable thing.
Try to get outside to boost your light levels, improve your diet, and try out a lightbox.
If that fails, it’s time to see your doctor. Seasonal affective disorder can be treated successfully—there’s no need to suffer in the dark.