Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of major depression that affects people in the darker months in autumn and winter. It can be quite disabling, reducing your mood and motivation so much that you may not get the pleasure from the activities you usually enjoy. You may feel overwhelmed with feelings of sadness, worthlessness and hopelessness. Your energy gets low, your appetite and weight tend to increase and your sleep is affected, usually by oversleeping. From a naturopathic perspective, there are a range of effective nature-based treatments as well as medications if required.

What causes SAD?

It is not completely understood but there is an obvious change in the seasonal exposure to light. It may be that it’s cold and you stay indoors more, but in general, in the darker months of the year, you get less bright light exposure from the lowered angle of the sun in the daytime; this is particularly true for those that live at higher latitudes (further North or South of the equator). This is thought to affect your internal clock (circadian rhythm) as well as your levels of neurochemicals and hormones such as serotonin and melatonin. Since these neurochemicals are not produced as regularly from the lack of light exposure, your mood is affected. Air quality may also play a role since you likely spend more time indoors in the winter where the air quality is generally not as good as outdoor air.

Lifestyle changes that can help SAD

The first and often most effective treatment is to get more bright light exposure. Bright light therapy (BLT) has been shown to be effective and is best started in the early Fall to prevent depressive symptoms from starting. BLT units can be placed close to you within the first few hours of waking for 30-90 minutes of exposure (not directly into your eyes, but indirectly at an angle). Typically, you start to feel more yourself with a better mood within a few weeks. Another useful strategy is to get outside during the daylight hours. Even though there are fewer daytime hours, try to get at least 30 minutes of natural light exposure each day – go for a walk on your breaks or lunch. Exercise has also proven to be beneficial in depression in general and some research has verified it’s benefit in those with SAD.

Supplements that can help SAD

Vitamin D has known benefits for your bones, immune system and neurological functions. According to 2014 research conducted at the Nutritional Physiology Research Centre of the University of South Australia, vitamin D has an overall benefit for those with depression. Other studies have found that people with low blood levels of vitamin D have a greater chance of developing SAD and having poor mental well-being. It is useful to have your primary health practitioner test your baseline vitamin D level, then take an appropriate dose of vitamin D3 and then monitor your changes in mood and follow-up vitamin D tests. L-tryptophan and 5-HTP are nutritional supplements that can also be helpful at helping your body produce serotonin. Researchers from New Jersey published a study in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry and found that L-tryptophan was as effective in helping those with SAD when compared to light therapy. Other studies have found that ensuring sufficient L-tryptophan can increase the success rates of those using bright light therapy. Good dietary sources of L-tryptophan include meats, poultry, fish and legumes.

Herbal extracts can also be beneficial. The most researched herb for depression is St. John’s Wort. A few small studies have shown that it can help with depression and sleep in those with SAD. It is important to work with your health professional when using herbs as they may interact with other medications that you may be taking.

About the Author

Rahim Habib is a registered naturopathic doctor with over 15 years of experience in general family practice. He has a special interest in helping patients comprehensively detoxifying their bodies for preventative and therapeutic benefit. He also has a special interest in children’s health, assisting kids in their learning and behavioural health with conditions such as ADHD, Autism spectrum, asthma, allergies and childhood obesity. He also helps adults with chronic conditions, such as thyroid disorders, infertility, inflammation, obesity, autoimmunity, dementia and cancer care. He is the director of the Four Seasons Naturopathic Clinic for Detoxification and Healing and can be reached at 905-597-7201 or