7 Tips To Help You Manage Seasonal Depression

Seasonal depression, or seasonal affective disorder (SAD), is a variant of depression. If you have SAD, you experience depressive episodes that start and end around a similar time each year. Typically, you’ll deal with symptoms in the autumn or winter, which tend to reduce or disappear in the summer and spring.

These episodes include low mood, changes in appetite, feelings of worthlessness, and fluctuation in sleep quality.

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 causes SAD?

There are many theories for this seasonal pattern of depression. A study suggests¹ that the lack of UV light in the winter affects mood through the vitamin D pathway, reducing serotonin creation. 

Another report shows that different factors, including increased pollen² in the air, prompt SAD spring variations. 

While no one is sure of the exact causes of SAD, the disorder can be debilitating. Like other forms of depression, SAD can significantly reduce your quality of life, leaving you feeling empty. 

It is important to manage SAD, so here are seven tips to relieve your SAD symptoms:

1. Talk to a healthcare professional

Consulting a professional, such as a general practitioner or psychologist, may help you understand your condition better and take the first steps toward getting better. Many medical professionals are trained to assess various mental health issues: they possess unique skills, and they can provide helpful advice. They could diagnose you, prescribe appropriate medications, offer counseling, and refer you to other professionals. Numerous therapy options are available online.

A healthcare professional can help you prepare for the season your depressive episodes occur in. If you already know your depression peaks in winter, seeking out a professional in autumn or spring may be useful.

They may be able to provide additional support, including preparing any medicines you may need in advance, establishing adequate coping skills to deal with upcoming SAD, or ensuring your schedule allows time for proper self-care.

2. Use lightbox therapy

Lightboxes are small machines that come in two varieties: broad-spectrum and UV. You can purchase these without a prescription, and they may be an effective supplementary treatment for SAD. You can use them to provide light exposure to your skin and retinas in the morning.

UV may help by increasing the availability of serotonin³ in your brain, a neurotransmitter (chemical messenger) highly involved in regulating mood.

Light therapy can help regulate your circadian rhythm (sleep-wake cycle). Winter months often disrupt circadian rhythms due to shorter days with more darkness.

Some studies⁴ have shown that broad-spectrum light (which is less UV-heavy than straight UV light) can relieve significant depressive symptoms with similar effectiveness as some antidepressants.

Light therapy is easier on the body than taking antidepressants as it causes fewer adverse effects. You can also use it alongside most other treatments for an even stronger impact on your symptoms.

3. Try antidepressants

You’ll need to consult with a healthcare professional to determine if antidepressants are the right step for you. If they are, they will prescribe you the appropriate medication for your circumstances. They will decide the dosage, the type of antidepressant, and tell you the best way to take it.

There are many antidepressants, and each has specific pros and cons. However, some antidepressants are especially helpful in treating seasonal affective disorder symptoms.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are usually the first choice for treating typical depression symptoms. Many studies have demonstrated their efficacy in treating SAD.

One study showed that sertraline⁵ produced significant improvements in patients with SAD compared to a placebo. Patients experienced only mild side effects. Fluoxetine⁶ can also improve symptoms, especially low moods.

Medications are often most effective when you combine them with other treatments.

Studies⁷ revealed that combining these antidepressants with light therapy is very effective in reducing depressive symptoms, especially SAD-related sleep issues.

It’s important to note that antidepressants are not the be-all and end-all solution to “curing” SAD symptoms. They often require additional treatments such as talk therapy or lightboxes.

The benefit of antidepressants also depends on many factors, including your symptom severity, sex, and age.

4. Start an exercise regimen

As with many other types of depressive disorder, making small changes in your life can hugely reduce your SAD-related symptoms. Exercising regularly is one of these.

An exercise regimen could involve joining a gym, a sports team, or scheduling a time to walk each day. Exercising increases endorphin levels and improves mood.

A systematic review⁸ suggested that as little as 10-30 minutes of exercise a day can significantly boost your mood.

Other studies⁹ have shown that if you maintain regular exercise over long periods, the increase in cardiorespiratory fitness can protect you against depressive symptoms. This even occurs when including factors such as socioeconomic status, alcohol intake, and weight.

The activity you choose doesn’t need to be vigorous cardiovascular exercise either—it just needs to be non-sedentary. So, don’t worry about needing to run a marathon; just getting off the couch for a walk is enough.

Many studies¹⁰ have demonstrated relationships between sedentary behavior and depressive symptoms. Those with higher regular periods of sedentary behavior tend to have a higher proportion of depressive symptoms.

You could see great improvements if you make simple changes such as walking to work, avoiding sitting for long periods, and taking the stairs instead of the elevator.

You’ll also increase your natural UV light exposure if you exercise outside.

Increased UV exposure may increase vitamin D synthesis, which can directly¹¹ influence mood or improve your mood through increases in serotonin production.

5. Change your diet

Diet can play a significant role in our moods, energy levels, and general mental wellbeing. Altering your diet to include or exclude certain foods may complement other seasonal affective disorder treatments.

You should avoid food and drink that can exacerbate seasonal depressive symptoms. It may be worthwhile to reduce alcohol consumption, as this can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms, a poorer outlook on life, and lethargy.

One study¹² indicated that people with SAD who consume large amounts of alcohol have low energy, mood, sociability, and unhealthy changes in sleep patterns. People with SAD who didn’t drink alcohol experienced these symptoms to a lesser extent.

Interestingly, some studies suggest¹³ vegetarianism may negatively impact SAD. This may be due to lower vitamin B12¹⁴ levels in vegetarians, but we need more research on the topic. Low B12 contributes to fatigue, which can exacerbate depressive symptoms, so it’s wise to include some meat or other high-protein, B12-rich substitutes in your diet.

6. Counseling/talk therapy

Many people living with depressive variants find some form of talk therapy or counseling very helpful. This could include group or cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). 

Cognitive behavior therapy is a highly effective treatment for seasonal affective disorder, particularly when combined with other remedies. Symptom improvements are also longer-lasting¹⁵ than with other treatments. 

While the process varies, the general CBT principle is that mental health issues grow from negative thinking and learned patterns of behavior. CBT often involves strategies to change the way you think and your behavior to reduce your symptoms. 

Many forms of therapy are effective, so you can find the one that works best for you. 

7. Take vitamin D supplements

Some experts suggest that Vitamin D supplements can ease seasonal affective disorder symptoms

People with low serum vitamin D levels¹⁶ have higher rates of diagnosed depression and depressive-type symptoms. 

UV exposure is required to synthesize vitamin D, so it tends to drop when light levels are lower during winter. This may cause seasonal affective disorder. 

It makes sense that artificially increasing vitamin D levels through supplements should reduce depressive symptoms. 

One recent study¹⁷ demonstrated that increasing vitamin D through supplements and UV-B light therapy (which can induce vitamin D) was linked to significant improvements in mood. The group that took the vitamin D supplements had a significantly greater decrease in depressive symptoms. Since this particular type of light therapy (UV-B) can increase the risk of skin cancer, taking an effective vitamin D supplement is the superior and more effective option. 

The lowdown

Seasonal depression can negatively affect your quality of life. However, there are always ways to decrease the severity of your symptoms, whether you try therapy, medication, a lightbox, or all three. It's important to check in with a health professional, especially if your symptoms persist or worsen.

  1. Vitamin D and depression: Where is all the sunshine? (2011)

  2. Mood worsening on days with high pollen counts is associated with a summer pattern of seasonality (2019)

  3. Bright light therapy: Seasonal affective disorder and beyond (2019)

  4. The Can-SAD study: A randomized controlled trial of the effectiveness of light therapy and fluoxetine in patients with winter seasonal affective disorder (2006)

  5. A placebo-controlled study of sertraline in the treatment of outpatients with seasonal affective disorder (2004)

  6. Treatment of seasonal affective disorders (2003)

  7. Efficacy of light therapy versus antidepressant drugs, and of the combination versus monotherapy, in major depressive episodes: A systematic review and meta-analysis (2019)

  8. Special issue – Therapeutic benefits of physical activity for mood: A systematic review on the effects of exercise intensity, duration, and modality (2018)

  9. Association between estimated cardiorespiratory fitness and depression among middle-income country adults: Evidence from national health survey (2021)

  10. Prospective associations between physical activity and clinician diagnosed major depressive disorder in adults: A 13-year cohort study (2019)

  11. Vitamin D and mental health in children and adolescents (2017)

  12. Seasonal affective disorder and alcohol abuse disorder in a population-based study (2017)

  13. Is there a relationship between vegetarianism and seasonal affective disorder? A pilot study (2016)

  14. Vitamin B12 among vegetarians: Status, assessment and supplementation (2016)

  15. Outcomes one and two winters following cognitive-behavioral therapy or light therapy for seasonal affective disorder (2016)

  16. Vitamin D serum level in major depressive disorder and schizophrenia (2020)

  17. Vitamin D vs broad spectrum phototherapy in the treatment of seasonal affective disorder (1999)

Other sources:

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

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

Do you want to know if there are any Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) clinical trials you might be eligible for?
Have you taken medication for Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?
Have you been diagnosed with Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

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