Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is said to affect about 2 to 3% of Canadians in their lifetime (1).
SAD, also known as the winter blues, is a type of recurring depression that appears at certain times of the year, and most commonly affecting those in northern climates during the colder and darker months.
Though it's common to feel a shift of energy and mood during the winter months, SAD occurs when depression begins and ends during a specific season every year and for at least two consecutive years (2).
While the exact reasons for the development of SAD are still unclear, research suggests that it may be associated with low vitamin D status, lack of sunshine exposure, and circadian rhythm misalignment.
Lack of daylight exposure can disrupt the circadian rhythm and impact hormones like melatonin and serotonin, which play an important role in sleep, energy, and mood.
Those with SAD may have particular difficulty regulating these hormones by overproducing melatonin and underproducing serotonin. This can result in increased fatigue and feelings of depression.
Unfortunately in order to receive an official diagnosis you need to have experienced atleast two seasons of winter depression, however you don't have to wait to feel better. Whether you have a diagnosis or not, if you're feeling a little blue there are natural strategies that can greatly improve your quality of life and your mood starting today.
5 natural strategies for Seasonal Affective Disorder
As mentioned, SAD is often associated with the darker months as lack of sunlight can affect mood associated hormones. Though it is recommended to get as much natural daylight exposure as possible, often times it's not always possible to do so. A light box provides a consistent artificial light source even when it's rainy, dark and grey outside. Bright light therapy is backed by research for its efficacy and is recognized as a first-line therapeutic treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder.
A study found that one hour of light therapy during a period of 2 weeks significantly decreased depressive symptoms among patients with SAD (3).
Light therapy may work in a number of ways including aligning the circadian rhythm, increasing serotonin uptake into the brain, supporting healthy sleep patterns, and increasing alertness.
A light box is a reliable way to receive the benefits from bright light when it's not so light outside. it is recommended to use your light box for atleast 15-30 minutes daily and on a regular basis to reap the most benefits.
As mentioned, vitamin D can play a role in mood regulation as well as the development of depression, though more research is needed to confirm just how significant that role is (4)(5). With the season change, exposure to sunlight decreases and it becomes challenging to obtain vitamin D from the sun in northern countries during the fall and winter months.
Those with seasonal depression have been shown to have low levels of this vitamin and because deficiency is so prevalent in the average population, it's worthwhile checking your blood levels with your doctor to determine if a supplement may be necessary (6).
A study found that improving vitamin D status among subjects with SAD also significantly improved depression scores, suggesting that it may be an important treatment in this disorder (7).
Though you may not always be motivated to exercise, it sure does feel good when you're done! That's because physical activity can improve your mood by triggering the release of feel good endorphins, stabilizing cortisol levels over the long term, and decreasing inflammation and oxidative stress.
Exercise is said to change the area of the brain associated with depression.
Research suggests that exercise can help treat current symptoms of depression while also helping to prevent future bouts of depression (8)(9)(10).
Exercise is a natural therapy that is easily accessible for most and can make a big difference in overall mental and emotional health.
Any form of exercise is beneficial, however to make it easier and more likely for you to get up and move regularly we recommend doing something you enjoy whether it's a kickboxing class, at home yoga, walking, swimming or something else. If you want to take your exercise to the next level in terms of boosting mental health, bring it outside and/or call a friend!
Our environment influences our overall mood and wellbeing, including how well balanced our emotions are and how much we are affected by stress.
Also known as eco-therapy, spending time in nature has been shown to be highly therapeutic for the mind and body.
Even brief contact with nature can make the difference. Spending as little as 20 minutes of time in nature per day can significantly decrease cortisol levels (11).
What about depression?
Connection with nature may ease symptoms of depression by promoting feelings of gratitude, ease, and mindfulness.
A study from 2015 found that walking in nature could lead to a lower risk of depression. Lower levels of rumination and reduced neural activity in the area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness was found among participants who went for a walk in a natural environment compared to those who walked in an urban environment (12).
Getting outside can also support the circadian rhythm by syncing the body with the earth's natural light and dark cycles. A great way to do this is by exposing your eyes to daylight in the morning and watching a sunset in the evening.
A loss of connection with nature can negatively impact overall health and wellbeing.
Evidence suggests that those who interact with nature may live longer with a better quality of life (13). Contact with nature is regarded as a health promoting strategy for those individuals experiencing chronic mental, emotional and physical health difficulties (14).
Humans are not meant to do this alone. Getting support is an absolutely essential part of any health journey and when struggling with mental health.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a form of psychotherapy that is well studied and is based upon revealing our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and how they influence our well being.
CBT allows for the individual to become more aware of their automatic thought patterns and to replace them with less harmful and more empowering ones.
A study found that CBT was a superior treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder compared to light therapy by achieving better long-term outcomes (15).
This solutions-oriented type of therapy can improve the overall quality of life of an individual, and not just during the winter time, as it teaches coping skills that they can use when any sort of challenge arises.
CBT has been found to be effective in many psychiatric disorders including depression (16).
Though depression is one of the most common mental health disorders encountered around the world, it can feel extremely isolating navigating it by yourself. Establishing a support system and reaching out for help if you do suspect you may be at risk for seasonal affective disorder, or any mental health challenge, can help you cope more proactively and feel better sooner and faster.
If you or someone you know is at risk of harming themselves, please get in contact with your local Suicide Prevention Hotline.