7 Natural Ways to Manage Seasonal Affective Disorder

October 18, 2019

"Seasonal affective disorder affects up to 5 - 10% of Americans every year."

As it grows colder and the days get shorter, millions of Americans are affected by something called Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD for short. In today’s live show with Dr. Nancy Lin, PhD, we explore this extreme case of winter blues, a depression that occurs in the late fall and winter months that can interfere with daily life. Get the top tips from Dr. Nancy to prepare for and enjoy the winter season this year while avoiding SAD symptoms.

Video Highlights

  • What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
  • Symptoms of SAD
  • Top 7 Natural Tips to Manage Symptoms of SAD
  • Go Toward The Light
  • There’s Strength In Numbers
  • Chase the Sunshine
  • Supplement with Vitamin D
  • Exercise, Exercise, Exercise
  • Maintain a Routine
  • Eat Your Way to Happiness
  • Wrap-Up 

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder is more than “winter blues”. It is defined as depression that occurs in the late fall and winter months and has symptoms associated with it that can interfere with completing your daily routines. 

As you can imagine, SAD is linked to shorter days when there’s less sunlight. As the season changes and the weather becomes cooler, people tend to hunker down in their homes more in an effort to stay warm, meaning they may exercise less, get less sunlight, and eat a little more. 

Depressive symptoms set in when a biochemical imbalance occurs in the brain due to that reduction in sunlight and sends your biological clock and circadian rhythm out of whack. Most notably, the brain chemicals serotonin, your body’s mood regulator, and melatonin, which also regulates mood, as well as sleep, are altered during the winter months.  

Here are a few interesting facts about SAD:

  • It is more common in women than men
  • It can last for up to 40% of the year
  • People who live closer to the equator are much less likely to experience SAD
  • SAD can occur at any age

Symptoms of SAD

Symptoms associated with seasonal affective disorder include:

  • Sadness or depression
  • Sleeping more
  • Increased appetite — craving carbohydrates, especially
  • Weight gain
  • Fatigue
  • Sluggishness
  • Agitation
  • Feeling worthless
  • Thoughts of death or suicide
  • Trouble focusing
  • Increase in restless movements, such as pacing
  • Social isolation, or a desire to “hibernate”

To be clinically diagnosed with SAD, you must experience these symptoms out during the fall and winter months for a minimum of two years. 

Since SAD is actually a form of clinical depression, it’s important to contact a licensed mental health professional if you ever experience the more severe symptoms like feelings of worthlessness and thoughts of suicide. We assure you, you’re not worthless! 

If you do consult with a mental health professional, he or she may prescribe medication, in addition to engaging in some form of talk therapy to help you manage your symptoms. There are, however, natural things you do, to manage and alleviate some of the symptoms associated with SAD. 

Top 7 Natural Tips to Manage Symptoms of SAD

Go Toward The Light

Lack of light is the enemy for someone suffering from SAD. Light therapy, therefore, can be your best friend. It might be a good idea to invest in a light box, which you can then set up conveniently anywhere — at home, at work, or back and forth between the two. Now, like any device designed to improve your health, there tend to be tons of products that claim to help, but don’t quite measure up.  

When investing in a light box, there are a few important things to keep in mind in order to get the most therapeutic results:

  • Make sure the light box generates 10,000 lux. Lux is a scientific term that is used as a measure of the intensity of light, as perceived by the human eye
  • The bulb should be blue or white, not yellow.
  • Use the light box for a minimum of 20 minutes and up to an hour and a half every day during the months when you’re most prone to SAD.
  • Early morning is the best time to use a light box, so try to get in as much time as you can before noon.
  • Place the light box about two feet in front of you and keep it at eye height or higher. 

Of course, nothing is better than the real thing. If you want your daily dose of natural sunlight, you just might have to bundle up more. Take a walk, or simply sit outside for a bit when the sun is out and soak up some rays. Remember, just because it’s cold out, that doesn’t mean you can’t absorb some sunlight, it just isn’t going to be as warm as the spring or summer.

There’s Strength In Numbers

Resist the urge to stay home by yourself, especially if you’re someone who suffers with more severe SAD symptoms. 

Try to keep up a social schedule during the winter months, and don’t let SAD get the best of you. Schedule dinners out with friends, go to the movies with loved ones, or host a party at your house. The busier you are, the less time you have to think about how much you really just want to crawl under the covers and sleep until spring. 

Chase the Sunshine

If you can, we highly scheduling your vacations during the months when you’re most at risk of suffering from SAD symptoms. If you can’t get your daily dose of vitamin D via the sunshine in your neighborhood, why not chase the sunshine to a warmer climate? Not only will you get a break from your daily routine, but if you take a vacation — even if it’s a mini one — to a location that boasts an abundance of sunshine, it can help keep SAD symptoms at bay. 

And the effects won’t just last while you’re on vacation. Think about it — don’t you get excited in the weeks, or even months, leading up to vacation? Then there’s the fun factor when you’re actually on vacation, and when you come home, the effects of that sunshine should linger for a couple weeks after your return. 

Supplement with Vitamin D

If you’re also someone who suffers from SAD, part of the solution is a high-quality vitamin D supplement. 

In fact, we recommend Smarter Vitamin D3 to everyone, whether you have SAD or not. It delivers the recommended 5,000 IUs of vitamin D you need that you can’t necessarily get from food… or from the sun during the winter months. 

Exercise, Exercise, Exercise

We can’t stress this enough — exercise does a body good! This is especially true if you have depression or seasonal affective disorder. If you’re lucky enough to live somewhere like California, you can exercise outside in 60- to 80-degree weather all year round. But that’s not the case for most people. It’s difficult to get motivated enough to go to the gym when it’s freezing outside, or even to workout at home during those cold winter months, even if you don’t have seasonal affective disorder. 

But it’s so important to try. Hopping on the treadmill or the stationary bike or the elliptical for 30 minutes a session, 3 to 5 times a week will do wonders for your mental state and for your SAD symptoms. Better yet, if you can, take a walk outside where you can get the double whammy of sunlight and exercise. 

Winter is not the time to slack off when it comes to exercise. I know there’s a lot going on with the holidays, coupled with the fact that temperatures might be in the teens where you live, but winter is the time when you need to be more disciplined about working out, especially if you suffer with SAD. 

Maintain a Routine

As you know, SAD can bring some sleepless nights, which can then make getting up in the morning a challenge. If you know you suffer from seasonal affective disorder, it is very, very important to establish a routine and keep yourself on a schedule. That includes going to bed at the same time every night and getting up at the same time every morning, even on weekends. Doing so will help you get the exposure to sunlight you need on a consistent basis. 

The same thing goes for mealtime. Establish a routine and be consistent there, too. Try not to overeat — a lot of people with SAD try to seek comfort in food. In the months when SAD symptoms can be the worst, it is crucial to watch, not only how much you eat, but what you eat, as well. 

Eat Your Way to Happiness

You’ve heard of “eat your feelings” right? Well, believe it or not, you can do that — but you need to be careful. We’re not talking about binging on sweets or salty foods like cookies or chips, but integrating certain foods into your regular diet can help combat symptoms of SAD. Foods like:

  • Salmon
  • Tuna
  • Sardines
  • Cod liver oil

These are all foods that are rich in vitamin D. However, as we already mentioned, it is nearly impossible to get the daily recommended dose of vitamin D from the foods we eat.

That’s not to say that eating certain foods can’t help alleviate symptoms associated with SAD. Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, for instance, can help alleviate symptoms of depression, which are many of the same symptoms associated with seasonal affective disorder. 

These types of foods help regulate levels of dopamine and serotonin in the brain. In fact, some studies have shown that those who sustain on diets with high amounts of fish, which are high in omega-3 fatty acids, are at a lower risk of developing seasonal affective disorder in the first place. 

So, we’ve established that foods rich in omega-3s are the best foods you can eat, but we do need to warn you that carbs are the enemy when it comes to SAD. Refined carbohydrates, in general, are not a very good thing, but for those who suffer from seasonal affective disorder, carbohydrates may only make your symptoms worse. 

This is due to the fact that your body craves the serotonin activity that’s lost when SAD rears its ugly head. Carbohydrates help the production of serotonin, but you want to make sure you’re snacking on the right kinds of carbohydrates.

Carbs like lentils, brown rice, and sweet potatoes are good choices, and, believe it or not, you want to eat the most carbs at night, like during dinner, because that’s the time when SAD symptoms can be at their worst. 

Wrap-Up 

Seasonal affective disorder affects up to 5 - 10% of Americans every year. It is more prevalent in women than men. 

SAD has been recognized as a form of depression and brings with it:

  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • An increase in appetite and carb cravings
  • Increase in sleep
  • Social isolation
  • Sluggishness
  • Fatigue
  • An inability to concentrate

Depending on the severity of your symptoms, you may need to work with a licensed mental health professional as a treatment option, however, there are several holistic remedies you can try, as well: 

  • Exercise
  • Take a vitamin D3 supplement
  • Stick to a sleep and meal schedule — don’t overeat!
  • Monitor your carb intake and load up on foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids
  • Invest in a light box
  • Try not to isolate yourself — go out and be social!

The exact causes of SAD are unknown, but there are a few theories: one is that people with seasonal affective disorder have trouble regulating the production of serotonin. Another is that people with SAD overproduce melatonin. A third theory is that people with SAD do not produce as much vitamin D as those who do not experience it.

Regardless, if you ever find yourself having thoughts of suicide or experience an inability to perform daily tasks or you have feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness, please reach out to a mental health professional. 

If you found today’s episode helpful, please like it and share it on your page. Now get out there and get some sunshine!

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