5 Ways to Manage the Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder


Photo by: Viktoria Hall-Waldhauser

Ah, winter time. The days are darker, the air is colder and a lot of us feel, sort of….”meh”. One potential reason for this change in mood is Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD). SAD is defined as “recurrent depressive episodes during autumn and winter alternating with nondepressive episodes during spring and summer”. Symptoms include low energy, irritability, overeating and weight gain. Symptoms generally begin in November and last, on average, for five months. Like with any condition, there are a range of possible causes for SAD.  It can be a mix of climate, psychological and sociocultural factors and genetic vulnerability. It also seems to disproportionately affect more women than men, and is more common among younger people.

Here are five things you can do to help manage SAD symptoms:

  1. Bright Light Therapy: These bright lights can be purchased at a variety of stores and the general recommendation is 10,000 lux (light intensity) for 30 minutes daily in the morning for up to 6 weeks. The light helps to alter circadian rhythms and modulate serotonin and catecholamines. Potential side effects include headache, eye strain, nausea and agitation. UBC has some good information on how to get a light device.
  2. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT): CBT has been shown to improve SAD symptoms, either on it’s own or alongside light therapy. Many therapists and other health care providers offer CBT services. Alternatively, there are options for working through CBT exercises online, such as with moodgym.
  3. Vitamin D: Many Canadians find themselves deficient in Vitamin D during the winter months. With the sun being further away from the earth and our skin being regularly covered with multiple layers of clothing, it’s hard to get much sun exposure. Improved Vitamin D status has been linked to improvement in depression scale scores.
  4. St. John’s Wort: This herb, also known as Hypericum, has a long history of use when it comes to depression. It can be consumed in a tea, tincture or pill form. Finding the dose that is right for you is important, as well as making sure this herb does not interact with any medications you may be taking.
  5. Melatonin: This hormone is produced by the pineal gland and helps to regulate sleep. It’s synthesis is triggered by darkness. Abnormal melatonin synthesis may be a cause of SAD. Supplementing with melatonin may help to manage SAD symptoms.

This list does not include the basic pillars for health, which are diet, exercise, stress management and sleep. These pillars should always be addressed first before beginning any sort of treatment. Seeing a Naturopathic Doctor can also help you to discover whether there is a dietary or hormonal component to your mood changes. I invite you to book a free 15 minute appointment with me, so that you can begin to feel good this winter and beyond!

Yours in Health,

Dr. Madeleine Elton, ND



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Goth, FM 3rd, Alam, W, Hollis, B. Vitamin D vs broad spectrum phototherapy in the treatment of seasonal affective disorder. J Nutr Health Aging. 1993;3(1):5-7.

Leppamaki S, Partonen T, Vakkuri O, et al. Effect of controlled-release melatonin on sleep quality, mood, and quality of life in subjects with seasonal or weather-associated changes in mood and behaviour. Eur Neuropsychopharmacol 2003;13:137-145.

Martinez B, Kasper S, Ruhrmann S, Moller HJ. Hypericum in the treatment of seasonal affective disorders. J Geriatr Psychiatry Neurol 1994;7:S29- S33.

Ravindran et al. Canadian Network for Mood and Anxiety Treatments (CANMAT) 2016 Clinical Guidelines for the Management of Adults with Major Depressive Disorder Section 5. Complementary and Alternative Medicine Treatments. Can J Psychiatry. 2016 Sep; 61(9):576-587.

Rohan, K, Meyerhoff, J, Ho, SY, Evans, M, Postolache, TT, Vacek, PM. Outcomes one and two winters following cognitive-behavioral therapy or light therapy for seasonal affective disorder. Am J Psychiatry. 2016 Mar 1;173(3):244-51.


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