Natural Ways to Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
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Are you one of the estimated 10 million Americans who struggle with the Winter Blues (aka. Seasonal Affective Disorder, or “SAD” for short)?
If you or someone you love struggles with this, you’re definitely not alone. The good news though, is that there are natural ways to treat seasonal affective disorder that can help.
Known to affect young women three times more than any other group of people, SAD generally occurs in the winter, but can also occur in the summer months. Typically, it manifests as ‘the winter blues’ and in severe cases it can even require hospitalization.
Seasonal affective disorder is a legitimate diagnosis recognized by the medical community and should not be minimized.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
To be diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder, a medical professional will look for a pattern of at least two years of major depression that changes with (and coincides with) certain seasons.
According to a recent article in Psychology Today, symptoms commonly associated with Seasonal Affective Disorder include:
- Sadness and feelings of hopelessness
- Suicidal thoughts
- Tendency to oversleep
- Changes in appetite, especially a craving for sweet or starchy foods
- Weight gain
- A heavy, weighty feeling in the arms or legs
- Low energy level
- Decreased physical activity
- Difficulty concentrating
- Increased sensitivity to social alienation
- Avoidance of social situations
Symptoms of summer SAD are:
- Poor appetite
- Weight loss
- Agitation and anxiety
Either type of SAD may also include some of the symptoms that occur in a major depression, including feelings of guilt, a loss of interest or pleasure in activities that you usually enjoy, ongoing feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, or physical problems such as headaches and stomach aches.
As a society we need to recognize common challenges like this as an illness and support one another. It’s important that mental illness of all kinds be de-stigmatized so that people can get the help they need to live their best life.
Although the cause is unclear, there is some evidence that SAD is related to the level of melatonin in the body.
Melatonin is a hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. The production of melatonin is stimulated by darkness. This prepares the body for sleep. As winter days get shorter and darker, melatonin production in the body goes up and people start to feel sleepier and more lethargic during what would be their normal waking hours.
People with SAD may also produce less Vitamin D in the winter months because they are exposed to less sunlight. Low levels of Vitamin D are associated with clinically significant depression symptoms.
While Seasonal Affective Disorder can affect anyone, it tends to be more prevalent in people living closer to the north or south poles than those who live closer to the equator. This is thought to be because people who live closer to the equator have the same number of daylight and nighttime hours year round and are not faced with the long winter nights and short days that come with living farther north or south. They also generally do not ‘spring forward or fall backward,’ like we do in America.
Family history of other types of depression can also make it more likely that someone will develop SAD between the ages of 18 -30, and it can last a lifetime.
So, what do you do when you realize you’re one of the millions affected by the winter blues?
Natural ways to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder
Disclaimer: This information is for entertainment and educational purposes only. If you are struggling with depression, please talk to your family doctor or health care provider about your available options. No one solution works the same for everyone. This blog is not a substitute for professional or medical advice.
>> Click here to read my full disclaimer.
For me, the safest approach is to treat SAD first with natural solutions. Fresh air, sunlight, time in nature, and a little aromatherapy can go a long way!
Get enough sunlight (or use a SAD light box)
One of the major reasons SAD affects so many people in the winter time is due to the lack of natural light. Shorter days, longer nights, more clouds, less sun… Just writing it feels a little depressing.
Let’s face it, we’re solar powered beings. Much like plants, we just couldn’t survive and THRIVE without sunlight.
Sunshine gives us energy and improves our mood. It helps our bodies produce vitamin D and regulate melatonin and serotonin, and all of this helps to boost our overall mood. So get outside and get some sunshine! Or at the very least make it a priority to sit by a sunny window for a while each morning to soak in the suns’ healing rays.
While good old fashioned sunshine is one of the best cures for SAD, if you’re finding you can’t seem to get enough during the winter months, using a light therapy box is a good way to supplement some of this natural light and can help trigger the brain to release melatonin. Light therapy boxes can be especially useful for people who work nights or can’t get outside during the day.
Connect with nature and enjoy the little things to help beat the winter blues
In the dark, bitter cold days of midwinter when we’ve been deprived of quality time in the sunshine and the trees are all bare, it can be easy for almost anyone to feel depressed and to overlook the tiny miracles that are happening all around us.
Signs of life abound, even in the dead of winter!
Go for a walk in the woods or the park and really pay attention to the natural world around you. Watch the songbirds flitting back and forth, gathering winter berries. Look for signs of greenery and new growth; Maybe even some snowdrops or crocuses have begun to emerge from the ground where you live.
Connecting with nature and appreciating the growth and signs of life all around us, even in winter can have a strong positive effect on our psyche and overall mental health. Aside from getting more sunshine (and fresh air), stopping to observe nature’s resilience and miracles even in the otherwise bleak midwinter helps us to feel grateful and hopeful, which can ward off feelings of seasonally-induced depression at this time of year.
Another great way to connect and appreciate nature in the winter is to bring some plants or flowers into your house.
Force some bulbs, get a houseplant, keep a vase of flowers on your table or even create your own terrarium out of moss, twigs and found objects. When the Christmas tree, garlands and wreaths comes down, that doesn’t mean it has to be the end of keeping greenery indoors until spring. There are lots of ways to enjoy a little bit of nature even when you’re cozied up indoors.
Combating Seasonal Affective Disorder with fresh air
There was a time, not so long ago, when mothers were told to bundle up their children and take them out for a walk in their strollers to get them some fresh air and sunshine.
There are many studies that show that getting fresh air (and sunshine, even if it’s hidden behind the clouds) helps boost immunity AND makes you happier as it increases the amount of serotonin (aka. the “happy” hormone) that your body produces.
Also, there is a direct correlation between happiness and immunity. The happier we are, the stronger our immune system tends to be! As with so many things in life, our mindset and psychology has a direct effect on our physical state. (Read more about the connection between happiness and immunity here).
Likewise, when we’re depressed and stressed our immunity is suppressed. So, it’s critical we do all we can to support ourselves.
Opening the windows on nice days and airing out the house comes from the same traditions. Even on a cold winter day, take a few minutes to open the doors and windows and let the old stagnant air out while bringing some fresh air in!
Essential oils for seasonal affective disorder
Another powerful, all-natural way to combat seasonal affective disorder is to incorporate some basic essential oils into your daily routine starting as soon as you feel the onset of depression.
I may be biased. (OK, I AM biased). But as a certified aromatherapist, I know that aromatherapy has the power to transform our mood. So why not employ a few drops of essential oils to boost your mood and get back on track?
If you’re accustomed to using essential oils, then you probably already know which oils you respond to best regarding elevating your mood and helping you feel grounded and return to a sense of emotional balance.
My personal favourite essential oils for uplifting mood are
- citrus oils like Bergamot, Wild Orange, and Grapefruit
If you’re well-versed in using essential oils to help elevate your mood, then get them out and start diffusing. Remember, you only need a few drops to have a big impact on your mood and sense of wellbeing.
How to use essential oils to combat seasonal affective disorder
Essential oils are the life’s blood of certain plants and have been used for centuries to support healing and a sense of wellbeing. They are powerful and should never be left where small children could accidentally ingest them or spill them on their delicate skin.
Additionally, caution must be exercised when using essential oils around the elderly or chronically ill. But used correctly, they offer natural support to help our bodies return to a state of homeostasis that promotes healing.
Only use essential oils that you can trust are responsibly sourced from reputable companies who are providing a pure and natural product.
At The House & Homestead, we recommend Plant Therapy essential oils for their quality, affordability and for the emphasis that Plant Therapy puts on safe use.
Start off by diffusing one oil at a time so you can evaluate the benefits of each oil. Remember, each person is unique, so what might be terrific for one person’s mood might stir up negative emotions for others. Until you smell the oils you can’t know for sure what memories might be associated with them.
Next, consider getting a diffuser or two.
I suggest you try the following oils for daytime diffusing if you’re struggling with S.A.D. or just need a pick me up:
- Wild Orange
Start by diffusing 6 – 10 drops in a large diffuser for 2 – 4 hours and pause to evaluate how you’re feeling. Then try another oil and take note how that compared to the previous oil.
Once you’ve taken note of how each individual oil makes you feel consider blending 2 or 3 of them, but do not exceed a total of 6 – 10 drops at a time. This type of experimentation can be fun and has the added benefit of helping you feel empowered to take action to help support yourself.
Self-love is one of the most important things we can do to improve our overall mood and sense of wellbeing.
A note of caution: citrus oils like orange, bergamot, tangerine, and grapefruit can be stimulating when diffused at night. They’re great for perking you up. But can make it difficult to sleep. So, listen to your body and see how each oil affects you personally.
Then once the sun goes down, try diffusing these oils overnight:
Try these oils individually in the nighttime for a couple of hours before bedtime. Should any one of them make you feel restless stop using it, rinse out your diffuser, and try another oil. They should help support relaxation and grounding and promote sleep. Only diffuse oils overnight that you have tried and gotten positive results with already.
Experiment with these nighttime oils as recommended for the daytime oils above. Let your body/mind be your guide in combining them when you’re aware of how they make you feel when you use them individually. Remember to not exceed 10 drops total in the diffuser at a time. It’s wasteful and frankly, unnecessary.
A word of advice: Clean your diffuser often to avoid build up of oils. It’ll function best when cleaned weekly, depending on use. Always follow the manufacturers recommendations.
You can also try some essential oil blends to help elevate your mood and calm anxieties this time of year. Here are a few to try:
Embrace the dark, cold winter months
In Denmark, there’s a word for embracing the cozy comfort and joy of wintertime. It’s called Hygge (pronounced “hoo-ga”) and it means “a cozy quality that makes a person feel content and comfortable.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of Hygge).
People tend to embrace the Hygge lifestyle during the holiday season with decorations, warm candlelight and a roaring fire in the fireplace, gathering with family and friends, comfort foods, good music, etc. Why not continue on with these Hygge practices right through the rest of winter?
There’s lots to be enjoyed in the winter that can’t necessarily be enjoyed the same way at other times of year. Cozy up with a good book and a cup of tea in front of the fireplace. Invite some friends over for a dinner party. Play a game or do a puzzle with your family. Enjoy your favourite comfort foods (but be sure to include lots of healthy veggies in your diet and don’t go overboard on sweets!)
Embrace all of the best parts of winter, and focus your attention on the silver linings that accompany the darkest time of year.
* To learn more about Hygge, be sure to check out the February 2020 issue of Modern Homesteading Magazine, all about how to embrace the dark days of late winter and bring more Hygge into your life! You can gain instant access to this issue along with our entire library of digital issue when you subscribe to Modern Homesteading Magazine right here.
If you’ve been feeling depressed lately, first and foremost you should always speak to your doctor, naturopath or other qualified healthcare provider. If depression is something you struggle with, you may need some professional help, and there is absolutely no shame in that! While depression is still not talked about nearly enough, it is incredibly common, affecting nearly 20 million Americans each year (source).
But if you’re generally in good spirits and it’s really just winter that’s got you feeling blue, or if you’re looking for simple, natural ways to increase overall wellness no matter what you’re dealing with, there are lots of things you can do to boost your mood.
- Make time for a walk outside, preferably in nature.
- Get a healthy dose of sunshine (or at least some light therapy).
- Open the windows and get some fresh air!
- Practice gratitude and enjoy the little things. Notice nature’s beauty all around you.
- Bring the outdoors in!
- Diffuse some essential oils and let aromatherapy take you to your happy place.
- Cozy up and enjoy all of the best things that winter has to offer.
And most importantly, remember that spring is just a few weeks away!
Got any other suggestions for natural ways to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder? Join the conversation in the comments below!
Penny Clegg is a certified aromatherapist, essential oil specialist and freelance writer. She lives in New Jersey with her husband Bill and together they enjoy travelling around the country in their RV with their fur babies, Tito and Fuzzy Muzzle.
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