It doesn’t take a health care professional or a study to confirm that weather affects our mood. When it’s dark and rainy out, we tend to feel more gloomy, while the sunshine often adds an extra bit of pizazz to one’s step.
The problem comes when those dreary winter months bring sadness or depression year after year, a condition known as SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder. This form of clinical depression comes and goes in a seasonal pattern – it’s also known as “winter depression,” as symptoms are typically more pronounced during the year’s chillier months. The disorder is estimated to affect some 10 million Americans, mainly those in more northerly climates prone to more intense, longer winters, which is why there are more Canadians that suffer from it than Americans. While it affects both sexes, it’s more common in women, though the reason behind that still isn’t clear.
While symptoms can vary from one person to the next, they most commonly include moodiness, daytime drowsiness and sleeping problems, anxiety, lack of energy, fatigue, changes in appetite or weight, social withdrawal, loss of interest in normally enjoyable activities, decreased sex drive and depressive feelings. While some might write it off as simple moodiness, SAD is a very real disorder that depends on exposure (or lack of) to natural light, one’s hormonal state, and temperature.
Typically, you’ll know if it’s SAD rather than traditional depression if you start feeling depressed sometime in September, symptoms peak during the winter months, and begin to dissipate in the spring. It’s not until you’ve experienced this for at least two consecutive winter seasons that you’ll generally be diagnosed with the condition.
Clinical associate professor of family medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in New York, Deborah Pierce, MD, MPH, says that it’s “important to treat SAD, because all forms of depression limit people’s ability to live their lives to the fullest, to enjoy their families, and to function well at work.”
The difficult part about this disorder is that, as mentioned, if you’re hoping to just go to your doctor, get a diagnosis and receive medication, you’d have to suffer through at least two winter seasons of depression. That’s a long time to be in mental distress – not to mention that pharmaceutical drugs typically come with a long list of side effects, many of which that can be worse than the problem itself.
The good news is that there are a number of natural remedies that you can try that may be effective for lifting your mood and easing those other symptoms that occur this time of year.
1. Light therapy
SAD symptoms are naturally relieved by sunlight, so it’s important to get outdoors as often as you can, but obviously, in the winter, many of us are forced to be inside more often than we’d like, which is why the problem often occurs in the first place. When you can’t get light naturally, a light therapy box can help, and you don’t need a prescription to get one.
A light therapy box gives off light that mimics sunlight and SAD sufferers simply need to sit in front of it for about a half-hour each day to stimulate the body’s circadian rhythms and suppress the natural release of melatonin, which triggers sleepiness. It can make a significant difference in symptoms, with 60 to 80 percent finding relief. According to researchers at Ann Arbor’s University of Michigan Depression Center, most people will find this treatment to be most effective when used first thing in the morning after getting out of bed – using it too late in the day can disrupt sleep.
A Dutch study published in 2014 in the Journal of Affective Disorders, discovered that one week of light therapy treatment may be just as effective as two, though most who use it continue throughout the entire season.
This Nature Bright Sun Touch & Ion Therapy Lamp produces a 17,000 Kelvin UV-Free light – which is equivalent to blue sky light in the North Pole. It helps to provide an anti-depressant effect within a few days of use and helps to balance your body clock, leave you feeling rested, refreshed and nourished. Get it here.
2. Dawn simulator
Dawn simulators can also be effective for finding relief from SAD. These gadgets are alarm clocks with a twist. Instead of waking you up abruptly with loud buzzing or music, they produce light that gradually increases in intensity as if the sun is coming up.
A recent Russian study, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, found that these simulators were just as effective as a light therapy box for people suffering from mild SAD. Researchers have also found that dawn simulators seem to increase athletic performance and enhance cognitive performance, as well as lifting one’s mood.
One user documented her experiences with it in a 2015 article published in The Guardian. She noted that when waking, the room was “filled with a soft but bright light,” adding that she woke as if “rocked into wakefulness, rather than being slammed into it,” and didn’t feel groggy or dopey, only “smoothly and peacefully awake.”
3. Take advantage of any and all sunlight
Even when there is just a ray of sunshine peeking through those clouds, get outside. For those with SAD, getting out during the day as much as possible, and taking advantage of any sunlight there is, is crucial. It may be cold out there, but force yourself to bundle up the best you can, and go for a walk around the block. Even better is getting a workout in outside – exercise, as mentioned in the next recommendation, coupled with sunlight, may be the very best natural prescription there is. Aim to get outside around noon or soon after if you can, as that’s when the sun is at its brightest.
When you’re indoors, keep those curtains and blinds open, letting in as much natural light as you can – the brighter the environment, the better, reports the University of Michigan Depression Center.
4. Get regular exercise
Getting regular exercise, indoors or out, is a must for beating SAD. While it may not be easy when you’re feeling out of sorts, it’s been proven to help with traditional depression as well as winter depression.
That’s because, when you workout, more feel-good hormones known as serotonin are produced, easing symptoms like sadness and brain fog. A 2004 study from the Boston University School of Medicine found that simply walking for 30 minutes on a treadmill for 10 consecutive days was able to achieve a dramatic reduction in depression symptoms. It also suggested that it’s the consistency and frequency of exercise that offers the most positive effects. That means, there’s no need to feel overwhelmed by the thought that you’re going to have to run a marathon just to reap the benefits of exercising.
SAD affects the body, mind, and spirit, and aromatherapy can address all three aspects. Scents have a powerful effect on emotions, like the smell of fresh-baked cookies or homemade bread, or the aroma of a former lover’s cologne. All can conjure up long-forgotten memories and often have profound, lasting effects. Essential oils are believed to stimulate regions in the brain, including those that control the immune, endocrine and limbic functions. They influence areas of the brain that are responsible for controlling one’s mood and internal clock which affects sleep and appetite.
A few mood lifting essential oils include bergamot, lemongrass and clary sage. To relax before bed, you might want to add a few drops of lavender essential oil to a bath. Essential oils from the poplar tree were found to help depressive disorders in a 2015 study out of Beijing that was published in the Journal of Natural Medicines.
Consider investing in an essential oil diffuser (they can be found starting at only around $20), as inhalation is generally the most effective way to enjoy the effects of essential oil, and diffusers work to disperse essential oils into the environment. You can also inhale the oil by placing a few drops onto a tissue.
This Bellasentials Essential Oil Diffuser was recently found by us to be the best essential oil diffuser in our comprehensive review of a number of features. Alternatively, if you’d rather try a nebulizing diffuser, read our article about them here.
6. Change your diet
Food plays a crucial role in our health and well-being, so not surprisingly, it can affect our mental state as well. Unfortunately SAD tends to make us crave unhealthy “comfort” foods, like sweet treats and starchy carbs, but that only helps to guarantee that you’ll feel a whole lot worse.
Transforming your diet can make a significant difference, such as including more omega-3 fatty acids which come from oily, fatty fish like wild-caught salmon, mackerel, and herring, as well as vegan options like flaxseed and hemp which help to boost serotonin levels. Research has found that SAD may be less common in those who consume more omega-3s, such as Icelanders, who tend to eat a lot of cold water fish.
Another way to increase serotonin levels is by eating foods that contain tryptophan, the chemical from which serotonin is made. It not only helps to produce serotonin, but it works with two other hormones, noradrenalin, and dopamine, to help lift one’s mood, promote a more relaxed state of mind, and make it easier to deal with stress. Foods that contain high levels of tryptophan include turkey, chicken, turkey, nuts, bananas, peas, pumpkin, and spinach.
Be sure to limit your consumption of refined carbs, such as processed foods like cookies, crackers, and chips, choosing fresh, whole fruits and vegetables, brown rice and lentils instead.
7. Take a vitamin D supplement
Low levels of vitamin D have been linked to SAD in research from 2014 reported in the journal Medical Hypotheses, while a study published that same year in the journal Nutrients showed participants who took vitamin D supplements experienced significant improvement in their depression. Patients with SAD often have low levels of the vitamin – if you suspect that may be in the case in your situation, your healthcare provider can check your vitamin D levels, and recommend a supplement if needed. It may not only help you feel better, it may strengthen your immune system and improve bone health too.
8. Escape to a warmer, sunnier climate
Taking a vacation in the wintertime to a warmer, sunnier climate can be extremely effective for battling SAD. It not only gives you a break from your regular routine, it gets you away from those cold, gloomy skies. You may even find relief before you leave, as simply preparing for a vacation tends to help make one’s mood brighter, thinking about the enjoyment that will be experienced once you get there. And, that feeling is likely to last for a few weeks after you return too, taking a big chunk out of that time you’d probably be wallowing in misery waiting for the sun to come back.
9. Talk therapy
While you may think that “talking it out” is only for traditional depression, research has found that cognitive behavioral therapy may be effective for treating seasonal affective disorder too. A study published in the March 1, 2016 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, found that it might be even more helpful for SAD patients than light therapy over the long term. After tracking people with SAD who were given either cognitive behavioral therapy or light therapy specific to the disorder over six weeks through two consecutive winters, they discovered that while during the first season, CBT and light therapy worked equally as well, after the second season, CBT proved to be more effective. Even in those who still experienced SAD, their symptoms were reported to be milder than those who had received light therapy treatment.
10. Write down your feelings and thoughts in a journal
Simply getting out your thoughts and feelings can have a positive effect on your mood and ease other SAD symptoms, as it helps get them out of your system and onto a piece of paper – or, your laptop.
Get a journal to write down what you’re thinking or feeling, or type those thoughts into your computer or another device. Aim to do this for 20 minutes at a time, daily if possible, or at least on most days of the week. The University of Michigan Depression Center advises doing this at bedtime, which can better allow you to reflect on everything that’s occurred over the last 24 hours.