Seasonal Affective Disorder: Natural Remedies That Can Help

Have you considered clinical trials for Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

What is seasonal affective disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a condition where people experience symptoms of depression that have a seasonal pattern, either in winter or summer. 

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), SAD is a subtype of bipolar disorder or major depressive disorder.

SAD causes low mood, weight changes, appetite changes, sleep disturbance, and issues with socializing or interacting with others. 

It's not known what exactly causes SAD, but it's likely due to a combination of increased levels of melatonin, low serotonin, and a circadian rhythm (body clock) that becomes out of sync with the clock-time and the sleep-wake cycle. 

Natural remedies for seasonal affective disorder

Like other depressive conditions, traditional medication and psychotherapy are effective treatments. Despite this, some people may wish to treat their SAD naturally. 

In fact, 42% of patients prescribed medications for depression stop taking them within 30 days of starting them¹. 

So, how can you treat SAD naturally? 

Diet

Why should you modify your diet?

People with SAD commonly experience changes in their appetite. 

  • Those with summer SAD often lose their appetite.

  • Those with winter SAD often have a greater appetite, especially for carbohydrates or “comfort foods.”

In either case, modifying your diet can help to improve your symptoms and manage your SAD

Ways to modify your diet

There are many ways you can modify your diet, but three nutrients that you could focus on include:

Complex carbohydrates

You should focus on complex carbohydrates high in fiber, found in food such as oats, beans, vegetables, and brown rice. 

Ensuring that the majority of carbohydrates that you consume are complex carbs is important. They help keep you full and give you energy because they are digested slower. This is particularly important for people who have cravings for simple carbohydrates in winter.  

When combined with protein, complex carbohydrates are also thought to increase the availability of serotonin in your brain, which helps regulate mood. 

Simple and processed carbohydrates, such as sugary drinks, table sugar, candy, and baked goods, give you a rapid spike followed by a drop in energy levels, bringing fatigue and yet more cravings for these foods.

Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat. They’re often referred to as “healthy fats” due to the many benefits they have for our health. 

More research is needed to determine how and why omega-3 fatty acids help with depression and how much of an impact omega 3s have compared to other treatments. Despite this, omega-3s are believed to be an important nutrient to focus on. 

Potentially, omega 3 fatty acids support the correct functioning of serotonin and dopamine² by keeping the cell membranes fluid. 

Omega-3s are found in food such as oily fish (salmon, trout, and mackerel), flaxseeds, soybeans, and walnuts.

Folate

Folate is one of the B vitamins. It is associated with the creation of brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) such as serotonin and dopamine, which regulate mood.

A healthy folate intake is associated with increased protection against developing depressive symptoms². Additionally, people with low blood folate levels may take longer to experience improvements in depressive symptoms. 

Folate is found in dark green leafy vegetables, fruit and fruit juices, whole grains, seafood, eggs, and dairy products. 

Sleep hygiene

Why is sleep hygiene important?

While people with summer SAD experience difficulty sleeping, those with winter SAD often deal with excessive sleep. 

Improving your sleep hygiene can improve your SAD symptoms. 

How to improve your sleep hygiene

Some natural ways to improve your sleep hygiene include:

  • Developing a routine sleep schedule. This should involve waking up and going to bed at the same time each day and trying to avoid naps during the day.

  • Creating a relaxing night routine to “wind-down” 30 to 45 minutes before going to bed. This can include having a bath, reading, or meditating. Even the act of putting on pajamas could help.

  • Keeping your bedroom at a cool temperature overnight.

  • Keeping your bedroom dark. If needed, you could use black-out curtains or wear an eye mask.

  • Keeping your bedroom quiet.

  • Turning off your electronic devices at least half an hour before going to bed and limiting your exposure to other bright lights. This is important to ensure melatonin is produced when you want to sleep.

  • Only use your bed for sleeping. Other activities like reading, eating, or watching TV in bed can cause you to associate your bed with being awake. 

These recommendations are beneficial for people struggling with insomnia as a symptom of their summer SAD. Although they don’t directly treat SAD, they can help reduce the negative effect SAD has on your sleep and improve your mood and energy levels. 

Melatonin supplementation

In winter seasonal affective disorder, where people sleep too much, it seems contradictory that melatonin supplements would be helpful. 

However, studies in people with winter SAD³ showed that a low dose of melatonin in the afternoon or evening could cause a “phase advance” of the biological clock, helping synchronize it with your sleep-wake cycle and the clock time. 

It possibly reduces other SAD symptoms, like increased appetite and carbohydrate cravings. 

People with summer SAD who experience insomnia may also find it helpful to take melatonin supplements, especially for those who live in areas where it may not get dark until late. This can help them feel more tired and ready to sleep. 

Light exposure

Exposure to light is important because:

  • It enables the body to produce vitamin D.

  • It helps to boost serotonin. Serotonin is dependent on vitamin D availability. Less vitamin D results in less serotonin, which affects mood and can lead to depressive symptoms.

  • It inhibits melatonin. Although this may not be a good thing if you have insomnia, it can be useful in people with winter SAD who often overproduce melatonin and experience excessive sleep. 

How to increase your light exposure in winter

Traditional light therapy uses a light box that gives off artificial light, mimicking natural sunlight. The light emitted is stronger than normal indoor lighting but weaker than a bright sunny day. 

It’s effective because it helps to realign the circadian rhythm with your sleep-wake cycle and clock time for people who live in areas where sunlight levels decrease significantly during winter. 

Light therapy involves:

  • Sitting in front of the lightbox for around 20 to 30 minutes every morning

  • Starting in early autumn to potentially prevent or lessen SAD symptoms.

  • Using it in the morning, as soon as possible after waking up. It should not be used at night, as this can worsen sleeping patterns.

  • Making sure the light indirectly enters your eyes. 

These light boxes are expensive and aren’t accessible to everyone. Minor side effects include eye strain, hypomania, nausea, and irritability. 

They can also be unsuitable for people with bipolar disorder or eye disorders and are not recommended for people with summer SAD, where too much sunlight is thought to contribute to symptoms. 

Fortunately, there are other ways you can naturally increase your light exposure, even in the darker winter months. 

  • If you’re able to, move to a warmer and sunnier place before your symptoms start in autumn or at the beginning of winter. People who live closer to the equator appear less likely to have winter SAD.

  • Spend time outside as much as possible. You can still benefit from natural light, even if it isn’t the sunniest day.

  • Open up your curtains during the day to let as much light in as possible.

Exercise

Exercise is beneficial for people with SAD⁴. Why does exercise help?

  • Exercise helps boost the production of serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins, improving your mood in the process.

  • It can help relieve stress and anxiety, common symptoms associated with SAD.

  • It can improve your self-image. Although this isn’t a cause of SAD, it can help you feel better about yourself and improve your mood. 

How to exercise to treat SAD

High-intensity workouts aren’t necessary unless you enjoy them and they make you feel good. Lower-intensity forms of physical activity, such as taking a walk or going for a leisurely bike ride outside in nature, can also help. 

You could also use your time outside to meet up with your loved ones. SAD can be isolating and cause social withdrawal, so it's important to maintain good social connections. 

Evidence also shows that combining exercise with light therapy⁴ is particularly effective for helping improve mood in people with seasonal affective disorder. 

In people with depression, it’s thought that 30 minutes of exercise 3–5 times per week can significantly improve symptoms, but 10–15 minutes may still be beneficial. 

Dietary supplements

Some studies have shown that certain herbal remedies and natural supplements can help with depression-related symptoms. 

It's important to be careful when using herbal remedies because they are not regulated or approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Research on herbal remedies is still limited compared to traditional medications. 

Follow all dosing instructions, read the warning information, and check with your doctor before starting any supplements. Even though they are natural, they can still have adverse effects if taken incorrectly and can interfere with other medications you take. 

St. John’s wort

St. John’s wort is an herbal remedy thought to increase serotonin levels by blocking the reabsorption of serotonin, like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). 

There is some evidence⁴ suggesting its use in treating SAD.

For mood disorders such as SAD, it is generally advised to take 300mg three times a day. 

You should not take St. John's wort if you take other antidepressants such as SSRIs. Doing so can lead to too much serotonin being produced, which can cause a dangerous condition called serotonin syndrome.

St. John’s wort can also cause minor, temporary side effects such as dry mouth, rashes, fatigue, and dizziness. It increases your sensitivity to light, so light therapy might be unsuitable if you take St. John’s wort. It may not be the best option for those with severe seasonal affective disorder.

Tryptophan

Tryptophan is an amino acid (a building block of protein)that indirectly plays a role in mood regulation. 

It’s an essential amino acid, which means your body can’t make it, and so you need to get it from your diet.

Although it's most common to get tryptophan directly from food, you can also take tryptophan supplements. It may help treat SAD⁴, specifically in people who don’t have a positive response to light therapy. 

Vitamin D

It has been suggested that there is a link between vitamin D deficiency and SAD. Since most of the body’s vitamin D is produced when exposed to sunlight, people living in areas with less sunlight are prone to vitamin D deficiency and are at risk of SAD.

Some studies have suggested that vitamin D supplementation can effectively treat the seasonal affective disorder. Taking a one-time dose of 100,000 IU of vitamin D daily¹ may improve the symptoms of SAD.

Vitamin D can also help promote the production and release of serotonin.

Stress management

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is a treatment used in people in remission from depression, and it aims to prevent returning depressive episodes.

Because of this, it's thought to be helpful for people with SAD in the season before their depression sets in.

Mindfulness meditation, yoga, and tai-chi are also popular treatments that could be beneficial for improving symptoms of depression.

The importance of planning and management

SAD is a recurrent disorder, which means that SAD often returns the following year despite effective short-term treatment.

Because of this, it's important to plan and prepare for seasonal affective disorder. You can do this by having a general idea of what to expect and understanding the steps to take to manage your symptoms.

The lowdown

Various effective natural remedies can help with SAD, including improving your light exposure, diet, exercise, and sleep hygiene. Although focusing on these factors may not treat SAD or prevent future recurrences, they can vastly help manage symptoms.

Natural remedies will be much better suited for some people with SAD than traditional treatments.

Have you considered clinical trials for Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

Joining community groups and exercise programs for my condition made me feel empowered – but I want to be part of finding a cure.
Peter, 64

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