Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): Nine Natural Supplements & Treatments


Do you regularly find yourself wanting to ‘hibernate’ during the winter months? If so, there is a chance you may be affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is a form of winter depression that comes and goes with the changing seasons and shorter days. Typical symptoms of this winter depression include fatigue, disinterest in daily activities, trouble sleeping, weight gain, craving carbohydrate-rich foods (junk food), and social withdrawal. The symptoms of winter depression can be severe and affect your ability to function normally. Luckily, there are is a range of evidence-based natural treatment options you can try for combating Seasonal Affective Disorder.

SAD can be effectively treated without using antidepressants in a number of ways. Find out what natural supplements and strategies work for treating Seasonal Affective Disorder below!

Did you know?
Six percent of people in the U.S. are believed to suffer from SAD, while another 14 percent are considered to suffer from a milder form of winter-onset SAD. (1)

Nine natural treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder

If SAD is negatively impacting your life, we recommend talking to your doctor about the following strategies and natural supplements.

Light therapy

Light therapy— also known as bright light therapy or phototherapy — is the regular exposure to bright light via a special (full-spectrum) light source. It is the treatment method most often recommended for patients whose SAD symptoms are distressing enough to affect their daily lives.

woman sitting on couch and reading a book with light therapy box next to her

During light therapy, you can work or simply sit in front of a device called a light therapy box. A light box gives off a bright light, mimicking natural outdoor light.

How does light therapy work? Light therapy is believed to affect brain chemicals linked to sleep and mood, easing SAD symptoms. SAD sufferers are often recommended to sit in front of a light for at least 20-60 minutes per day. (2)

Light therapy may start to improve SAD symptoms in as few as two days. But in some cases, it can take two to four weeks. (3)

For milder cases of SAD, a leisurely-paced long daily walk outside or just being upright and around at home while exposed to outdoor light from a window during the day can improve your mood.

Did you know?
The most difficult months for those affected with SAD are usually January and February. (4)

Cardio exercise

Daily aerobic exercise has also been found to be a very effective treatment for mild to moderate depression. Don’t underestimate the power of sweating it out!

close up of two people's legs and feet running on treadmills in gym

Combined, light and exercise have been shown to be effective treatments for seasonal problems such as sleep, especially SAD-induced insomnia. (5)

Are you keeping up with your running cardio? A 2015 study found that exercising just 30 minutes a day (10 minutes warming up, 15 minutes running, and 5 minutes cooling down) is an effective maintenance treatment for depression. (6)

Biking is a great option too. A randomized controlled trial of 98 participants found two daily sessions on a stationary bicycle separated by five minutes of rest, each involving a five-minute warm-up followed by 10 minutes of basic pedaling, and 10 minutes of pedaling at 75-percent maximal heart rate lead to significant reductions in depression severity. (7)

St. John’s Wort

St. John’s wort has also been shown to help treat mild to moderate winter depression. (8)

St. John’s wort plant on table next to a wooden spoon filled with six supplement pills

The St. John’s wort plant (Hypericum perforatum) has five-petaled, vivid yellow flowers that when crushed release a reddish purple oil.

Taking 300 mg of St. John’s Wort extract standardized three times a day for at least eight weeks has been shown to be an effective treatment for mild to moderate SAD. (9)

Talk to your doctor before self-administering this herb at home for winter depression, as it has been shown to interact with many different prescription medications, including antidepressants and birth controls.

Did you know?
If you are using light therapy, St. John’s wort may cause increased sensitivity to sunlight.

Melatonin

Patients with SAD experience an aberrant seasonal variation in their light/dark nocturnal melatonin profile. The shorter daylight periods in the wintertime actually delay the inhibition of morning melatonin secretion in patients with SAD.

There is some limited evidence that suggests taking melatonin orally can improve the quality of sleep in some patients with SAD. One 2003 study conducted in Europe found people with SAD reported significant improvements in quality of sleep and vitality from taking 2mg of melatonin one to two hours before bedtime for three weeks. (10) But overall, experts agree more research is needed.

Talk to your doctor about supplementing with melatonin if you are having trouble sleeping. Melatonin seems to be safe when used short-term, but the lack of long-term studies means we don’t know about its extended use safety.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D deficiency might be an underlying cause behind SAD. Epidemiological evidence shows that vitamin D deficiency is associated with an 8%–14% increase in depression and a 50% increase in suicide. (11)

With more than 70% of the U.S. population estimated to be vitamin D-deficient, taking a vitamin D supplement is often a ‘can’t hurt’ idea for people with SAD. If you suffer from SAD and think you may be vitamin D-deficient, ask your doctor about supplementing dosage.

Fish oil (omega-3 fatty acids)

A review of clinical trials suggests omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil can be beneficial in the treatment of depression, though the hard data suggests the best outcomes occur when fish oil is used as an additive to standard antidepressant therapies. (12) Ask your doctor about taking a fish oil supplement for SAD treatment.

SAMe (S-adenosyl-L-methionine)

This supplement has been shown to treat SAD symptoms quicker than St John’s wort, though sound research to back up its long-term effectiveness is lacking.

A 2002 study found that 200-1,600 mg of SAMe taken daily in the mornings on an empty stomach proved to be an effective dosage for easing depression symptoms, but more research is needed to determine best dosing practices. (13)

Keep in mind SAMe can interfere with other medications, such as blood thinners. It can also cause a variety of side effects, including dry mouth, diarrhea, dizziness, and insomnia. This is why talking to your doctor before starting any SAMe supplements is important.

A well-balanced diet
Do not underestimate what you are eating having a considerable influence on your mood.

Research has shown that following a well-balanced diet high in antioxidants can help you meet all your daily essential nutrient needs. (13)

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is another effective treatment for SAD and is also generally considered safe for most people. CBT-SAD relies on basic techniques of CBT such as identifying negative thoughts and replacing them with more positive thoughts along with a method called behavioral activation.

In one study that compared CBT and light therapy for SAD treatment, CBT proved useful after just a few weeks, whereas light therapy needed to be continued throughout the winter season. (14)

B vitamins

The B vitamins are thought to be helpful in treating mild depression, though studies have not found them to be effective in treating SAD. (15)

man sitting on couch with water on the table in front of him, pouring a supplement into his hand from a supplement bottle

It is important to be aware that B vitamins can increase the efficacy of prescription antidepressants.

So, what causes Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

No one exactly knows what causes SAD, but it has been linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain triggered by limited daylight hours and lack of sunlight found in winter months.

Researchers also note that SAD is much more common the farther someone lives away from the equator, and the closer someone lives, the less likely. (16)

Did you know?
A less common form of SAD, summer-onset depression, usually manifests late spring or early summer and continues until the following winter.

The symptoms are typically somewhat different from winter depression. They include insomnia, irritability, agitation, anxiety, weight loss, increased sex drive, and poor appetite. (17)

Talk to your doctor about ways to beat seasonal depression

If you’re interested in trying an alternative therapy to treat your seasonal depression, be sure to talk with your doctor, therapist, or psychiatrist about any SAD symptoms you are experiencing. Some of your symptoms could be a result of physical disorders including hypoglycemia, infectious mononucleosis, and other viral infections. You want to be sure you are correctly and formally diagnosed with SAD before starting any at-home treatments.

Your trusted healthcare provider can help you determine which therapies will best help you to stop hibernating and start feeling like yourself again!