Natural Remedies for Seasonal Affective Disorder

Light therapy is one way to combat the winter blues. Image Point Fr/Shutterstock

If some sort of contest for "most appropriate acronym for a medical condition" ever existed, SAD, or seasonal affective disorder, would no doubt take the grand prize. The Cleveland Clinic estimates that half a million Americans suffer from SAD (and an additional 10% to 20% of the population is thought to suffer from a milder form of SAD called winter-onset seasonal affective disorder otherwise known as the common "wintertime blues.") The symptoms of this disorder, naturally, revolve around being sad. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms for fall and winter SAD include depression, anxiety, fatigue, social withdrawal, overeating, oversleeping and loss of interest in things one might normally enjoy.

There are numerous ways to cope with seasonal malaise, particularly wintertime moodiness. One of the most popular SAD-busters is to escape on a sun-drenched tropical vacation during the dead of winter. But even though most of us would be more than happy to remedy a foul February funk by decamping to Palm Springs for a week, going away is often not in the cards for financial or scheduling reasons.

Below you'll find a handful of natural, inexpensive methods of coping with wintertime depression that don’t involve shelling out a lot of cash to lie on the beach in Puerto Rico. And if you're truly feeling down in the dumps, seek the advice of a mental health professional to help sort out things.

Let there be light: A common treatment for SAD is light therapy or phototherapy. During light therapy, sufferers of SAD usually sit in front of a special light therapy box at home each morning for around 30 minutes. Light therapy boxes mimic natural sunlight, helping to promote a chemical change in your brains that lifts you from the funk that you're in. Just think of a light therapy box as a tanning bed for the brain (without the harmful side effects).

Although using a light therapy box is an effective and convenient way to lift one's mood during the winter, it's still no replacement for exposure to natural sunlight. That said, a lack of sunlight during the winter months is what often causes the moody mess that is SAD in the first place. But unless you live somewhere like Reykjavik, Iceland, or Barrow, Alaska, the sun will indeed rise at some point and you should take every opportunity to expose yourself to it. Try exercising outdoors in the morning before work, leaving your office during lunchtime for a zesty walk, and rearranging your furniture at home for optimum exposure to natural light. Basically, the key here is to take advantage of natural daylight even when it's overcast.

Mood food: During the winter do you find yourself frequently carbo-loading and polishing off pints of Ben and Jerry's in your pajamas? Although eating calorie-laden comfort food may bring some sort of insta-relief when you're feeling down in the dumps, it's important to eat nutritious foods that naturally help to boost your mood. Don’t normally eat bananas? Have a couple along with breakfast or as a snack during the winter to help boost levels of serotonin. For meals, feast on fresh fruits and veggies and whole grains and don't shy away from poultry, fish, milk or eggs. These items are rich in both the amino acid tryptophan and in vitamin B-12, both crucial players in the production of serotonin.

Picky eaters can benefit from taking dietary supplements when feeling blue during the winter. Vitamin D, St. John's wort, B vitamins and fish oil supplements are all commonly taken to alleviate SAD symptoms. However, it's important to check in with your physician before starting in on a seasonal vitamin regimen, especially if you're taking antidepressants.

Sweat it out: As mentioned, bundling up and heading outdoors to exercise is an excellent way to fight SAD since you're exposing yourself to natural sunlight, getting a bit of fresh air, raising serotonin and endorphin levels and improving metabolism. Try taking a zesty constitutional, jogging or biking if the weather permits. If you have ski slopes nearby, hit 'em. If heading outdoors isn't an option, frequent the gym on a regular basis. Don't do gyms? Try working out in the comfort of your home using traditional equipment, a gaming system or low-cost DIY gear. And if you've never tried your hand (or rather your whole body and mind) at yoga, winter is an excellent time to give it a shot. Deep breathing exercises and meditation are also helpful in combating SAD.

Odds and ends: Getting plenty of exercise, exposing yourself to sunlight, real or artificial, and eating nutritious, serotonin-boosting foods are the biggies when it comes to naturally fending off wintertime depression. And then there are a few other activities that, although more minor, do add up and help to send the wintertime blahs packin'.

  • Don't keep your feelings all bottled up. Talk to someone whether it's a friend, family member or therapist. Use winter as an excuse to plan a get-together with your long-lost college roommate or call up your sister in Cleveland who you've fallen out of contact with. Although your brain might be telling you to stay isolated, transform yourself into a social animal and seek out personal interaction during the cold months.
  • Good, old-fashioned fantasizing during the gloomy depths of winter never hurt anyone. Once you've exercised, settle down with a good book (or better yet, join a book club), catch up on your DVR and watch a few movies that take place in beautiful, tropical locales to get your mind off of things. Just don't watch something like "The Blue Lagoon" too many times or you may become resentful and impulsively book a trip to Jamaica.
  • Try your hand at something new if you're finding that you don't have much interest in your normal activities during the winter. Take cooking classes (or subject your family to new, experimental recipes), start a journal, volunteer or take up crafting. The winter is also a fantastic time for home improvement and decorating projects, so keep busy around the house by painting the living room, reorganizing the kitchen or beautifying your bedroom. Also, depending on where you live, why not embark on a new gardening project? Whatever you do, it helps to involve bright colors to brighten both your mood and the general mood around your house.