5 Home Remedies for Seasonal Affective Disorder

There are many home remedies for seasonal affective disorder that can help relieve the anxiety and depression. Learn about home remedies for SAD.
©iStockphoto.com/Katherince Moffitt

Few people look forward to the gray days and long, dreary nights of winter. In fact, most people feel better in the summer, when the days are longer, sunnier, and warmer. We get out more, exercise harder, and eat less. But for some people, the transition from summer to winter triggers feelings of depression.

For these individuals, the change in seasons signals a marked change in personality -- from happy (or at least okay) and relaxed to depressed and tense. They may have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, concentrating, and moderating their eating (especially when it comes to carbohydrates, which they crave). They lose interest in the activities that they ordinarily enjoy, and they may feel irritable and down. Then, when spring comes, they feel like themselves again.

Until the 1980s, people suffering from this seasonal change in personality had no idea what was wrong with them. But then Norman E. Rosenthal, M.D., who worked at the time at the National Institute of Mental Health, made the connection between the shorter, darker days of winter and the onset of seasonal depression. He and his colleagues began studying this phenomenon and gave it the name seasonal affective disorder (SAD). It has since been added to the primary diagnostic manual for mental health conditions.

Nobody knows what causes SAD. Experts believe that light plays a part, and that exposing people with SAD to extra light sometimes improves their mood. The hormone melatonin also appears to be involved. In animals, melatonin regulates hibernation. Melatonin is secreted in the dark, and humans have more of it in their bloodstream during winter than summer. In fact, when scientists administer melatonin to research subjects, their body temperatures decrease and they become drowsy. Scientists further speculate that people with SAD often benefit from light therapy because light shuts off melatonin production.

SAD appears in varying degrees. Some people feel mildly depressed; others are so depressed they require hospitalization. In others, mood is unaffected, but their energy levels are so low that they aren't able to accomplish the things they would like to or would normally be able to during other seasons.

So what can you do about SAD, short of taking a warm weather vacation every few weeks during the winter? The home remedies on the next page may help.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

1

Get Light

Get as much natural light as possible between 6:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m.
Get as much natural light as possible between 6:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m.
©iStockphoto.com/Eric Gevaert

Stave off the sadness that can become overwhelming if you're suffering from seasonal affective disorder by increasing your exposure to light. Get as much natural light as possible between 6:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. Get outside and go for a walk, or at least sit by a window. Open the curtains, pull up the shades, and spend time in the sunniest room in the house. Eat lunch outside. If you can't get out in the morning light, at least get out on your lunch break. Even if it's cloudy, the natural light will do you good.

Indoors, try natural full-spectrum lighting and use light-colored fabrics, walls and rugs.

One of the most effective treatments for SAD is regular (usually daily) exposure to a specially designed light box, one that provides enough intensity of light to positively affect SAD symptoms (the light needs to be at least 10 times the intensity of regular household or office lighting). Two variations on the basic light box are also available: a special light visor (you want the particles of light from a light device to actually enter your eyes) and a "dawn simulator," which is a light box that simulates sunrise by switching on when you awaken and growing brighter and brighter as the morning wears on. The amount of exposure time required each day can be as little as a half hour to as much as several hours, although you are encouraged to go about normal activities such as eating or reading during exposure time. Talk with your doctor about whether you should try one of these devices.

2

Watch What You Eat

Eating oranges, cereal and tryptophan-rich foods can help boost your mood.
Eating oranges, cereal and tryptophan-rich foods can help boost your mood.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

The carbohydrate craving common in people with this disorder is thought to be caused by decreased levels of the brain neurotransmitter serotonin. Since tryptophan is a precursor of serotonin, taking in more of this amino acid may increase the body's production of serotonin and help you feel better. Although there is no solid research that supports the benefits of eating tryptophan-rich foods, you might want to try eating more of these foods to see if your symptoms improve. Foods rich in tryptophan include turkey, milk, and egg whites.

Other foods to try:

Basmati rice. The sugar in this rice is slow to release into the bloodstream, which helps blood sugar levels stay constant instead of going through highs and lows. Drastic changes in blood sugar can lead to weight gain, which is a side effect of SAD. Other foods with a similar effect on blood sugar are rye bread and pasta.

Bouillon. When the carbohydrate craving is just about to defeat you, drink some hot bouillon or broth. Hot liquids in the belly are filling, and consuming them before a meal is an old diet trick that reduces food consumption. Better the bouillon than the banana cream pie.

Cereals. Cooked cereal, unsweetened muesli, and bran flakes are slow to release sugar into the bloodstream, which helps raise serotonin levels.

Fruit. Apricots gradually raises serotonin levels and helps keep them there, as do apples, pears, grapes, plums, grapefruits and oranges.

3

Limit Alcohol and Caffeine

Coffee smells great, but if you have SAD, reach for herbal tea instead.
Coffee smells great, but if you have SAD, reach for herbal tea instead.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Avoid self-medication with alcohol or caffeine. Caffeine may give you a brief lift, but it can also cause anxiety, muscle tension and gastrointestinal problems. Alcohol, on the other hand, is a depressant, which can further exacerbate your low mood.

Any herbal tea is a better choice than teas with caffeine. Your reduced energy level may cause you to turn to caffeine for a boost, but it can also cause anxiety, muscle tension, and stomach problems, so opt for herbal. Chamomile, peppermint, and cinnamon are pleasant-tasting choices. Drink a cup instead of giving in to your carbohydrate cravings.

4

Get Moving

Try to exercise outdoors in the morning, or have a regular indoor routine.
Try to exercise outdoors in the morning, or have a regular indoor routine.
©iStockphoto.com/wojciech_gajda

Engage in regular aerobic exercise. Again, we don't know for sure if exercise helps people with SAD, but some evidence suggests that it does. Aim to exercise outdoors in the early morning hours. Try walking, jogging, biking, swimming. Even better, exercise in the sun or near a sunny window.

You can also keep your body's clock in sync by rising and retiring at the same time each day, even on weekends or days off from work. When you can't get going no matter what you do, try sucking on some ice. Its chill can give you a wake-up call. Or, splash your face and wrists with ice water.

Another option is to steep peppermint or lemon oil in water and inhale. These are stimulating oils and may give you a little extra zip.

5

Take a Vacation

SAD rarely affects people living within about 30 degrees of the Equator.
SAD rarely affects people living within about 30 degrees of the Equator.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

If possible, move to a sunnier climate. Most people can't just get up and relocate. But for those who can, moving to a sunnier area helps SAD symptoms disappear. Indeed, SAD rarely affects people living within about 30 degrees of the equator. Otherwise, plan to take a trip during the winter months, whenever possible, to warm and sunny climates.

For most people with SAD, it takes two or three days of bright sunshine to elicit a reversal of symptoms. And, consequently, a tipoff that you may have it is if you find great relief in your symptoms when traveling towa­rd the equator (that's south for folks in the United States).

Whether it's cutting back on caffeine and alcohol or moving to a sunnier place, there are several ways to decrease the effects of SAD. Whatever you do, be sure to seek guidance from a professional if the feelings of depression become overwhelming. If they are not severe, and instead just somewhat of an inconvenience, some of the natural home remedies listed in the next section may provide relief.

For more information and a list of resources, see the links on the next page.

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SAD Resources

  • Your local medical school's department of psychiatry. The school may have researchers who focus on SAD.
  • The American Psychiatric Association, 1000 Wilson Blvd., Suite 1825, Arlington, VA 22209 or (www.healthyminds.org).
  • The book The Winter Blues by Norman E. Rosenthal, M.D. To find out more about his work, go to www.normanrosenthal.com.
  • The Society for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms (SLTBR). While this is a nationwide professional society for experts in the field, its membership roster includes health professionals that are qualified to do light therapy. Write to SLTBR, 174 Cook Street, San Francisco, CA 94159, or visit www.sltbr.org.
  • The National Organization for Seasonal Affective Disorder at www.nosad.org.

ABOUT THE CONSULTANTS:

Ivan Oransky, M.D., is the deputy editor of The Scientist. He is author or co-author of four books, including The Common Symptom Answer Guide, and has written for publications including the Boston Globe, The Lancet, and USA Today. He holds appointments as a clinical assistant professor of medicine and as adjunct professor of journalism at New York University.

David J. Hufford, Ph.D., is university professor and chair of the Medical Humanities Department at Pennsylvania State University's College of Medicine. He also is a professor in the departments of Neural and Behavioral Sciences and Family and Community Medicine. Dr. Hufford serves on the editorial boards of several journals, including Alternative Therapies in Health & Medicine and Explore.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.