It is estimated that 10 million Americans suffer from it. SAD (seasonal affective disorder) is characterized by depression that occurs (and tends to recur yearly) during the fall and winter months as sunlight wanes. People with SAD may feel lethargic or irritable, sleep more than usual, or experience changes in appetite such as an increased craving for carbs. During the spring and summer months, the world looks brighter, literally and figuratively, and they begin to feel more optimistic and energetic. The disorder can negatively affect major aspects of everyday life, including work and relationships. A few natural treatment approaches offer a ray of hope.
1 - Light Therapy
A 2017 study published in Psychiatry Journal concluded that symptoms of this form of winter depression improved greatly with light room therapy, a treatment that has been practiced in Sweden for decades. Subjects sat in rooms lighted with fluorescent bulbs and painted in white/light colors for two hours daily on weekdays, residing comfortably in armchairs in small groups reading, talking, or just relaxing. Light room therapy was found to result in improved sleep, energy, mood, activity, and cognitive functioning.
There is evidence that light therapy has an effect on the brain similar to antidepressants. In a study published in 2016, 11 patients with SAD treated with light therapy for two weeks experienced lower levels of “serotonin transporter binding,” which resulted in increased levels of serotonin. In fact, their serotonin levels became similar to those seen during the summer months.
You can do light therapy treatment at home with a light box. However, stay away from "full spectrum" lighting, says Emily Kane, ND, LAc, a naturopath based in Juneau, Alaska, as the UV light may be harmful to your skin and eyes. “Choose ‘broad-spectrum’ lights instead, which omit the UV, and feature the healing green wavelength,” says Kane. “The intensity of the light is what counts: go for 10,000 lux [a measure of light intensity] from a light box, or install four 2,500 lux bulbs in existing fixtures in the room where you’ll spend time in the early morning.”
Seek out sunlight during the winter months, or use a light box to mimic the effects of sunlight.
2 - Melatonin
The hormone melatonin normally rises in response to darkness and is suppressed with the light of morning. However, the shorter days of winter could cause our circadian rhythms to fall out of sync with the actual time of day. Melatonin works by helping to keep your biological clock in a 24-hour rhythm. “For SAD, you usually only need a small dose of melatonin—0.3 to 0.5 milligrams,” says Tieraona Low Dog, MD, a leading expert in integrative medicine and author of Fortify Your Life: Your Guide to Vitamins, Minerals and More. Low Dog recommends taking it when it starts to get dark.
3 - Vitamin D
Several studies have shown a link between low levels of vitamin D, often called “the sunshine vitamin,” and depression. A 2015 study published in Depression Research and Treatment concluded that taking high-dose vitamin D could be an effective treatment for SAD. However, researchers warn that adverse reactions or intoxication, although rare, could occur from doses of more than 50,000 IU per day. Recent findings lend support to preceding research associating vitamin D deficiency with depression. A 2017 study published in the journal PLoS One concluded that “vitamin D deficiency was a significant predictor of depression” in patients with chronic kidney disease. Use 5,000–10,000 IU daily.
Research shows taking high-dose vitamin D could be an effective treatment for SAD.
4 - Rhodiola
Rhodiola rosea is an adaptogenic herb that helps the body better cope with biological and physical stressors. Rhodiola has been demonstrated to help those who suffer with fatigue and depression. This herb may help support normal energy levels, improved physical and mental performance, and healthy mood balance. A 2015 study pitted rhodiola against the popular antidepressant Zoloft and a placebo. Depression scores of participants taking rhodiola were improved, although slightly lower than those taking Zoloft, and rhodiola beat out the placebo. The side effects of rhodiola were far fewer than those of Zoloft, and researchers concluded that rhodiola may “have a superior risk-benefit profile for those with mild or moderate depressive symptoms.”
5 - St. John’s Wort
Studies have shown St. John’s wort extract (SJWE) to be very effective in reducing depression scores in patients with SAD. In one study, patients were treated with 900 mg of SJWE daily, combined with either bright (3000 lux) or dim light (<300 lux) therapy. There were significant reductions in depression scores in both groups (72% and 60%, respectively), indicating that SJWE may offer support to patients with SAD—either alone or in combination with light therapy.