Seasonal Affective Disorder Natural Treatments

by in Depression March 14, 2008

The end of winter tends to be the most frustrating for those that struggle with seasonal depression.

We tend to feel even more agitated and moody this time of year especially now that all the excitement of the holidays have died down.

March and April for those of us at the coastal northern latitudes means a few straight months of rain.

What better time for me to unveil my alternative medicine approach to seasonal depression?
Whether you just have depression during the winter months, or whether you struggle with depression all year round that is exacerbated by the low light conditions of winter; having a plan in place to better cope with the realities of winter depression is an important preventative measure.
My last name serves as a convenient mnemonic to help remember how to take care of yourself throughout the winter months…


Sun– for Sunshine

D– for vitamin D

E– for Exercise

N– for Nutrition

E– for Everything else!

(Thank you to Dr. Jane Guiltinan for her contributions on this protocol)

Seasonal depression formally referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can have debilitating consequences. If you struggle with depression, be sure to share this plan with the family and friends on your “support team” so that if you find yourself in an excessively dark and gloomy place this winter you can easily get some help to pull you out of the “hole”.

Although severe depression should also improve with this protocol, those experiencing moderate to severe depression should ALWAYS be working with their health care provider. Anyone experiencing thoughts of suicide should be under the supervision of a physician.

The following are the basics for my protocol for seasonal depression.

“Sun” – We need 10,000 lux of light every day in order to produce enough serotonin to feel happy. This can be achieved by 15 minutes outside on a bright blue sky sunny day, or 1 hour outside when it is overcast. You may wonder “What in the world is a lux?” A lux is the light equivalent put off by one candle. So you can light 10,000 candles in your home to cheer yourself up (a bit of a fire hazard!) or you can just invest in a light box.

A light box is an excellent idea for those with seasonal depression and is best used for twenty to forty minutes in the morning depending on the manufacturer’s recommendations to achieve the 10,000 lux equivalent.If you are unable to afford a light box you can simply try full spectrum light bulbs as these often provide enough light for those with mild to moderate seasonal depression.

Keep in mind also that outdoor places near water or snow are great to visit during the gloomy months of winter as the light is intensified as it is reflected back up to our eyes. If you are concerned about protecting your eyes from UV radiation, you can buy sunglasses with a clear lens, but that still provide UV filtration as it is the actual photons of light that our brains use and not the UV radiation to produce serotonin.

Those struggling with seasonal depression need to make an appointment with the sun or the sun’s substitute every single day. Topping off your serotonin levels by day means that more of this neurotransmitter will be available for conversion to melatonin (the hormone that keeps us asleep at night). Using light as a medicine should easily improve your sleep, leaving you more energetic for the following day.

“D” -Vitamin D is no longer considered a vitamin, but a “pro-hormone”. Exciting research about vitamin D is on the horizon, and some evidence supports a link to depression, although some studies do not support this link. Just about every patient I have ever checked in Seattle has been vitamin D deficient.

Vitamin D is produced in our bodies when UV light touches our skin. Most people living in the northern latitudes are easily vitamin D deficient if they do not spend 20 minutes outside each day. Elderly people have thinner skin, and thus produce less vitamin D, they also absorb less dietarily. Until further evidence supports this theory linking depression with low vitamin D levels, it only makes sense to be sure that you are at least not deficient in vitamin D.

The RDA for adults ranges between 200 IU and 600 IU. Food sources of vitamin D are milk, fish, and yeast. I typically recommend 1000 IU of vitamin D for my patients struggling with depression as a cheap and easy insurance policy that they are not deficient in vitamin D.

If you would like to have your levels checked be sure that your physician orders the “25-OH-D” as that is the most reliable indicator of vitamin D stores. Do not ever exceed 1000 IU of vitamin D unless under the care of your naturopathic physician. Dangerous side effects such as hypercalcemia can occur.

“E” -Exercise- is the drug of choice for anyone that is depressed. It is a tough medication to take though when depressed because as best summed up by Newton’s laws of motion: “An object at rest stays at rest until acted upon by another force.”

When you are down in the depressed hole it is tough to get exercising, but stagnation is just going to perpetuate your problem.

Countless studies support the efficacy of exercise for depression. If you struggle with seasonal depression be sure to try to exercise outside EVERY SINGLE TIME the sun is out! Find a walking, running, or cycling buddy and take turns pushing each other out there. Whatever you do…just keep moving! Being cramped up in doors during the winter months is the problem and not the solution.

“N”Nutrition is fundamental for anyone struggling with depression. When the body does not feel good the mind is soon to follow.Depressed thinking often results in poor dietary choices.

When we are depressed and in a low light setting we crave carbohydrates so that the body can produce more serotonin. However, sugar is exactly what the body does not need in the long term for healing from depression. The best diet for those with depression, anxiety, and bi-polar to follow is the LOW GLYCEMIC INDEX DIET.

Balancing out the blood sugar will help keep the mood at an even keel throughout the day. Be sure to eat protein with every meal and especially foods high in tryptophan such as turkey, cottage cheese, peanuts, fish, eggs, oatmeal, avocados, and bananas.

A high quality multi-vitamin will cover all the bases and ensure that you are not deficient in any of the B vitamins that are coenzymes for producing the neurotransmitters that make us feel happy.

“E” -For everything else! There are many treatment options for depression. Please do not give up hope.

Counseling, herbs, amino acids, and of course anti-depressants when need be will help keep you out of the “hole”. Naturopathic treatments for depression often take time as they are addressing the whole person and the long term.

As a physician, I give every treatment plan three to six months to determine it’s efficacy. If you are not experiencing improvement you may want to consider other treatment options. Various counseling and therapy techniques are also available, if you find you are not making progress with your therapist, consider a new referral for a different type of therapy.

Remember that aside from physical and mental components, there is also a social component to seasonal depression. Much time spent inside, or repeatedly with the same people inside can contribute to a poor mood.

Schedule weekly activities to get you out of the house and interacting with others. If you live alone, the winter months can feel especially isolating. Find an elderly person that also lives alone to check in on, it will do you both a world of good.


Read all of our articles on DEPRESSION

If you enjoyed this post please feel free to leave a comment, share this information with those that might benefit and subscribe to future articles! Thanks for stopping by my “kitchen table”…

~Dr. Nicole Sundene

Naturopathic Physician

  1. This article is very informative for me Dr.Nicole. The infomation in this post will be helpful in helping change several things about my life to help my depression.
    I actually do not get to be outside too much and I am changing this, Im going to spend at least 30 a day outside.
    I want to also use the LOW GLYCEMIC diet, this diet looks as if it will help depression and aid weight loss.
    Thank you

  2. Kitchen Table Medicine March 18, 2008 at 2:07 pm Reply

    Bethany- I am so happy you found this useful! Stable blood sugar=stable mood…working towards understanding how to eat fiber and protein with every meal is key to the long term big picture. Most of us just don’t spend enough time outdoors anyways…it is always good to have a friendly reminder.

    Take good care,

    ~Dr. Nic

  3. What an informative article…thanks for all of the insight and valuable information. I am adding you to my bookmarks right now:)!

  4. Kitchen Table Medicine March 19, 2008 at 6:20 pm Reply

    Glad you liked it Dani! Thanks for stopping by…

    ~Dr. Nicole

  5. Thank you for commenting on my blog! I am so glad you like the content! I worked for a holistic doctor for 5 years and there is so much people can do to help themselves battle depression! Thank you for spreading the good word about vitamin D! I saw that help so many people. Also the intake of omega3 oils, like a good quality fish oil! This is a great site full of informative information.

    • Kitchen Table Medicine March 27, 2008 at 1:15 pm Reply

      Glad you like it Jenn…I love your site and have banner envy. You are too cute and fun. Look forward to more of your recipes, feel free to leave links to new ones or anything healthy that pertains any time you stop by!

      ~Dr. Nicole

  6. I love you Dr. Nicole!!

    Great article too! I am so glad that spring is on it’s way!
    Take care and make sure to let me know when your next one comes out!!

  7. Great article Doc! I’m a year round depressed person who doesn’t get enough sunlight – I guess the glow of the PC Screen doesn’t count!

    • Kitchen Table Medicine March 27, 2008 at 1:14 pm Reply

      Hahahaha…yes Justin, I don’t think the light from the computer screen is going to cut it. Maybe I can invent one that puts of lux…I will chat with my computer people and see what I can do for you 😀

  8. Just seeing the “sun” made the depression go away
    WOOOHHHHOOOOOO the Doc is back! Missed you, sweetie

  9. I have a friend who lives in Alaska and she swears by the light box. Although I lived there for many years, the winter darkness didn’t bother me, but for some it’s horrible.

  10. Barbara- you are one of the lucky ones! Wow Alaska would be tough. Seattle is rough enough! Yikes…

  11. Dr. Nicole thank you so much for this article. I was born and raised in Hawaii, so I struggle in the winter now that I’ve moved to Salt Lake City, UT. Thanks for the helpful tips.

  12. Sterling- wow that would really be tough. I would love to live in Hawaii…someday…

    Thanks for stopping by. Glad to help!

  13. Whatever type of therapy you decide to try in your battle against this seasonal depression, it is important to keep in mind that it it treatable. Tons of people suffer from this disorder and find ways to diminish the affects it has on their bodies. Through proactive techniques such as light therapy, you can even prevent its effects altogether each season. When you see the days start to become shorter, simply turn on your light.

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