Easing Seasonal Depression

February 12, 2010

For those of us who suffer from seasonal depression—also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD—November through March can seem like an eternity.  It is estimated that up to 20% of Americans suffer from SAD to some degree, and women make up the vast majority of this group! 


Typical symptoms of SAD include increased carbohydrate cravings, weight gain, feeling irritable and tired with the need to sleep more, disrupted sleep cycles and a disinterest in social activities. 


It is most likely a combination of factors that causes SAD, including genetic predisposition, some combination of nutritional/hormonal/neurotransmitter imbalances, and lack of natural sunlight.  The good news is there are a number of strategies that SAD sufferers can take to lift their moods during the winter months.  As a matter of fact, everyone can benefit from many of these steps, even if one’s symptoms aren’t severe enough to be given a label. 


  • Get your Vitamin D levels tested:  If you suffer from seasonal depression and are not sure of your vitamin D level, please ask us or one of your other doctors to run the simple vitamin D test called “25 (OH) D.”  Our bodies can readily manufacture Vitamin D when our skin is exposed to the ultraviolet rays from natural sunlight.  But living in the northern hemisphere during the winter months, we don’t receive enough sunlight to make adequate vitamin D.  Many of us are probably not storing up enough D from summer sun exposure due to either direct avoidance of the sun or heavy use of sun block.  Let me be clear that I am not advising not using sun block!  But getting about 15 minutes of morning or late afternoon sun without sun block will certainly help to increase your levels.  (And for those with a personal or family history of skin cancer, year-round vitamin D supplementation is a safe option.) 

  • Use a lightbox:  Many people respond beautifully—and quickly—to light therapy.  Light therapy boxes cost around $200 (up to $500 for additional features) and should emit approximately 10,000 lux (units of light intensity).  Many people suffering from SAD will see improvement within about a week, using this type of box for about 30 continuous minutes daily.  Note:  tanning beds are not a form of light therapy, and they emit high concentrations of damaging UV rays, as well.  In contrast, light boxes provide safe, full spectrum light with very little, if any, radiation. 

  • Keep a regular sleep schedule:  Our natural circadian rhythms are directly influenced by light.  Less exposure to natural light during winter months can lead to sleep cycle disruption, which can contribute to SAD.  Normally, the approach of evening darkness stimulates the production of melatonin, a hormone that causes us to feel drowsy in preparation for sleep.  As morning light increases, melatonin levels drop, prepa