With changes in season come changes in mood — at least for an estimated 10 million Americans suffering from seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, which causes symptoms similar to those of depression.
Why seasonal? As fall approaches, days get shorter, disrupting the natural circadian rhythm and causing many people to sleep poorly. And less exposure to sunlight during fall and winter months also affects levels of serotonin, a feel-good hormone, which can lead to symptoms of depression.
SAD, also called seasonal depression, is more common in women than men and is much more prevalent in northern regions where sunlight is sparse in winter. Symptoms, which tend to be milder than for clinical depression, may include fatigue, irritability, pessimism, sadness, hopelessness and anxiety.
Unlike sufferers of depression, people with SAD get a reprieve from symptoms for most of the year. Many people don’t need medication to treat symptoms, and find home remedies to be effective.
Here are 3 ways you can relieve symptoms of SAD without medication:
1. Light box therapy
The first line of treatment for seasonal depression is usually a light box, which exposes users to bright light without the harmful UV rays. It must be used at the same time each day.
“Bright light works by stimulating cells in the retina that connect to the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that helps control circadian rhythms,” says Mary Jo Rapini, a Houston, Texas-based psychotherapist and author. Activating the hypothalamus at the same time every day can restore a normal circadian rhythm and effectively treat symptoms, she says.
Many doctors prescribe light therapy, but you don’t need a doctor’s note to try it yourself; light boxes can be found at department and home stores for less than $50. To use one properly, sit directly in front of the light for 15 to 20 minutes each day at the same time. It should take at least two weeks to improve symptoms. While side effects are rare and mild, they sometimes include nausea, difficulty sleeping and mild headaches. And note that light therapy doesn’t work for everyone.
2. Short-term therapy
Some people with seasonal depression respond well to talk therapy administered by a licensed psychotherapist. In a recent controlled clinical trial that compared psychotherapy to light therapy, researchers found both to be equally effective short-term treatments, according to research published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
However, a separate study published in the same journal found that two years after both therapies, subjects who underwent talk therapy had fewer and milder symptoms, with fewer depressive episodes. This suggests that talk therapy— even if administered for a brief time— is more effective for long-term results.
If you have health insurance, it may cover several mental health appointments per year— enough to get you to spring without having to spend too much. People being treated for seasonal depression typically undergo several weeks’ therapy during the winter, according to the American Psychological Association. Unlike medication, short-term therapy can stop and start with few side effects.
3. Lifestyle improvements
As is the case with many conditions, a healthy diet can help ease symptoms. “Diet is critical for managing SAD and mood in general,” Rapini says. Opting for more vegetables can be helpful, and eating lighter meals to improve insulin regulation may also alleviate symptoms.
Regular exercise helps any type of depression, including SAD, Rapini says. Even taking a walk on your lunch break may alleviate some symptoms.
Since seasonal depression is usually related to the amount of natural light you’re exposed to, and vitamin D is produced naturally in the skin from sunlight, people with seasonal depression are often vitamin D deficient. Some experts recommend taking a vitamin D supplement, but this area needs more study; it’s always a good idea to check with your doctor before taking any supplement.
These remedies may help many SAD sufferers, but not all. If you have severe symptoms lasting two weeks or more, that’s when it’s time to see a doctor, Rapini says.