Beat the Winter Blues! Seasonal Affective Disorder

By Melissa McCarty, ND

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a common affliction in the winter months, when days are shorter, darker and rainier. This lack of sunlight is thought to contribute to symptoms of SAD including loss of energy, mild depression, oversleeping, overeating and carbohydrate cravings. People that have SAD, also called “winter depression,” report feeling “normal” in sunnier, summer months. Fortunately, there are several natural ways to combat these symptoms.
  • Light therapy is one of the easiest, non-invasive, natural ways to treat SAD. There are numerous research studies supporting the beneficial effects of light therapy for SAD. Special light boxes which provide 10,000 lux are used to stimulate light exposure and are available online and at various stores throughout the region. The daily goal is thirty minutes of direct facial exposure in the morning, while you’re getting ready for work and eating a healthy breakfast.
     
  • Fight carbohydrate cravings that can contribute to and aggravate feelings of depression by altering blood sugar levels. Eat healthy protein sources like nuts, seeds, dairy and organic meats and eggs regularly and always pair them with each carbohydrate serving. Choose complex carbohydrates such as fruits, grains and vegetables instead of simple ones like white flours and sugars.
     
  • Research supports the benefits of exercise for depression. It can be tough to exercise in the winter, but find an exercise buddy to encourage daily movement and help keep you motivated. Find a gym in your area that offers indoor recreation, exercise classes and equipment to keep you out of the dark winter weather.
     
  • Vitamin D supplementation—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. While ideal levels of the vitamin are debatable, it’s important to check blood levels of 25-OH vitamin D as there are toxicity concerns if too much is taken. Most data supports daily doses of 2000IU of vitamin D3. Food sources include cold water, fatty fish like cod, salmon, sardines, herring and fortified cereals and milks. Of course, sun exposure can provide vitamin D, so plan a sunny winter vacation! Tanning beds provide some UVB exposure and can increase vitamin D levels, but these put you at increased risk for skin cancer.
     
  • Other nutrients that can be helpful for people with SAD include omega-3 essential fatty acids, B-vitamins, Melatonin, Saint John’s Wort and amino acids like 5-HTP and L-tryptophan. Each of these therapies can have potential side effects if taken with certain medications, so it’s important to talk with your naturopathic physician about safe, appropriate doses for you.
To find a naturopathic doctor in your area who can suggest natural remedies for fighting Seasonal Affective Disorder, visit our Find a Doctor page.