Seasonal Affective Disorder Treatment: 3 Natural Ways to Manage SAD

March 9, 2020

If you’ve ever been to Seattle, you know how beautiful it can be there when the sun shines. The view of Mount Rainer against a blue sky and the bright green foliage is breathtaking. But you’re also likely familiar with what the weather is usually like—cold, wet, gray, and downright dreary. I know because I grew up there. And while I never really noticed an effect on my disposition as a child, I have to admit that after moving to sunny Arizona, I noticed a drastic improvement in my mood. I love the feel of the warm sun and being able to just jump into my pool almost year-round.

It’s funny how true the saying is about hindsight being 20/20, right? I look back on my time in Seattle and realize that the environment really did have a huge impact on my mood. And, according to science, that connection between weather and mental health and wellbeing is actually very important. In fact, there’s a type of depression known as seasonal affective disorder, and its diagnosis is based on how the seasons impact your mental health. Now, as an expert in stress and adrenal fatigue, this fascinates me because I know how depression and anxiety impact your body’s ability to handle stress. And the opposite is true as well. After all, higher levels of stress shave been shown to increase your risk of depression and anxiety.

So, I looked into it further and realized it’s much more common than you may realize. Read below for what I discovered, including some of the shocking signs you could have this disorder, along with information on seasonal affective disorder treatment and even ways you can manage it on your own.


What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

As you might suspect, seasonal affective disorder (also known as SAD, quite appropriately) is a form of depression that occurs within certain seasons—typically during the fall and winter seasons. Fortunately, it doesn’t last indefinitely, as researchers have found that it tends to disappear along with the colder weather. And while depressive episodes can happen during warmer months, it’s far less common to experience them in the spring and summer. [1]

As I shared above, seasonal affective disorder affects more people than you probably realize—up to 20 percent of our population! [2] According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in order to be diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder, you must display all the symptoms of major depression during certain seasons for at least two years in a row. The signs of major depression include: feeling consistently depressed, feeling you have little hope or worth, having low energy and lack of interest in things you used to enjoy, having difficulty sleeping, experiencing appetite and/or weight changes, feeling easily agitated, having trouble concentrating, and frequently thinking about death or suicide. 

In addition to these symptoms, signs of winter seasonal affective disorder include: excessive sleepiness, craving carbohydrates along with weight gain, and experiencing social withdraw. These are actually the symptoms I experienced while living in Seattle—fatigue, sluggishness, a little sad. In fact, I struggled to even get up to go to work.

Conversely, signs of the less frequent summer seasonal affective disorder include: poor appetite and weight loss, inability to sleep, restlessness and anxiety, and violent behavior.

How Does Seasonal Affective Disorder Occur?

Before we can discuss seasonal affective disorder treatment, we must first look at how it occurs. Interestingly, scientists have been studying what causes seasonal affective disorder, and their findings are quite eye-opening.

According to a 2014 study, levels of serotonin transporter (SERT), which is responsible for transporting serotonin, were 5 percent higher in people with seasonal affective disorder. Meanwhile, those who didn’t have the disorder had no changes in their SERT levels. [3] The higher levels of SERT are associated with less serotonin in the brain. And when you have lower levels of serotonin in your brain, it leaves you at higher risk of depression.

Considering this, along with the fact that serotonin helps to regulate your sleep, is it any wonder why changing levels of serotonin can result in the sleep-related symptoms mentioned above?

But there’s another factor to consider here as well: the stress hormone cortisol that’s secreted by your adrenal glands in times of stress. Cortisol not only initiates your body’s fight-or-flight mode, but it also controls your circadian rhythm (your natural sleep-wake cycle). Because cortisol fluctuates with light and dark environments, it’s usually highest right after you wake up in the morning, it falls throughout the day and is low at bedtime. Furthermore, according to studies, cortisol is also believed to play a role in seasonal affective disorder.

In a 2011 study, researchers compared a group of people with seasonal affective disorder against a control group (people without the disorder) and measured each group’s cortisol levels. While cortisol levels remained the same during summer months (longer days and with longer periods of sunlight), the researchers did discover a difference in winter months. In fact, the group with seasonal affective disorder has lower cortisol levels upon waking in the morning than the control group.

Moreover, the group with seasonal affective disorder reported greater levels of depression, stress, and anxiety along with lower levels of alertness. These findings led researchers to believe that cortisol plays a role in the development of seasonal affective disorder. [4] The takeaway here? It’s vitally important for your mental health and wellbeing to help your body manage stress appropriately so that your cortisol rhythms don’t put you at increased risk of disorders such as seasonal affective disorder. 

Could You Have Seasonal Affective Disorder?

If you suspect that you could have this disorder, take a look at some of the surprising risk factors:

  • You're a female. Women are four times more likely to have SAD than men.
  • You're young. Younger adults, children, and teens are more likely to have SAD than older adults. But why is that?
    Sadly, research has shown that today’s teenagers are more stressed and lonelier than ever before. In fact, according to a recent study, today’s college-bound high school seniors spend, on average, an hour less on in-person interactions each day compared to kids of the same age in the 1980s. [5] In-person interactions are known to be crucial for optimal physician and mental wellbeing. [6]
    It’s also known that today’s younger generations are very technology-focused. Give this factor, plus the fact that teens often are stuck inside during the winter months, it’s logical to assume they would turn even more so to technology. Couple that with social media influences, exercising less than previous generations, and the increase of eating processed food, is it any wonder that today’s younger generations are putting more stress on their bodies? And all of this stress and lack of direct sunlight sets them up for depression and anxiety.
  • You live in the northern half of the U.S. Believe it or not, you're about nine times more likely to have SAD if you live far above the equator than if you live closer to it. [7] Personally, I find this statistic quite easy to believe. When I left Seattle, I moved to Arizona for two years, but then I moved back to Seattle for a while. That’s when I noticed the biggest impact in my mood. I felt like I was in a cave and missed the sunlight and outdoor living.
    When I ended up moving back to Arizona, I was so much happier and not at all negatively impacted by the weather—even during the notoriously hot summers. Being near the equator has definitely helped me maintain a positive disposition.


Seasonal affective disorder treatment - Dr. Pingel


Seasonal Affective Disorder Treatment

If you’re looking for natural seasonal affective disorder treatments, you’re in luck! There are actually several things you can do to naturally support your mood and help fight depression and anxiety. Check out these top all-natural seasonal affective disorder treatment suggestions.

3 Natural Ways to Manage SAD

1. Take regular vacations!

If you suspect that you may be experiencing this disorder and are looking for a natural seasonal affective disorder treatment, I have a surprising suggestion for you: Consider taking regular vacations! Because the winter months tend to be more commonly associated with seasonal affective disorder, consider trying to get away to a warmer climate a few times during the winter season. You may be surprised by how much the sunlight and warmer weather can help uplift your mood.

One more perk? The beautiful weather will likely encourage you to spend more time outdoors and away from your technological devices, which has been shown to help reduce depression, anxiety, and stress.

2. Support your gut health.

As we reviewed above, serotonin has been associated with seasonal affective disorder. So, it only makes sense that supporting that pathway would serve as an effective seasonal affective disorder treatment.

You can begin to support your serotonin production by supporting your gut. Why? Well, approximately 80 percent of all serotonin is made in your gut! Don’t know where to start? Take a look at my article on supporting digestive health. And it’s always a great idea to take a quality probiotic to replenish the good bacteria you need in your gut.

3. Support your adrenal health.

Likewise, to support your cortisol levels, your best course of action is to support your adrenal gland health. My four-step plan is a great place to start if you’re looking to combat adrenal fatigue, which is known to deplete your adrenal glands and disrupt your cortisol levels. This can be an especially useful natural seasonal affective disorder treatment for those living in darker climates with longer winters, as your cortisol rhythms are impacted by darker environments.

The great news here? Regardless of your location, there are all-natural things you can do support your mental health and wellbeing today!


Key Takeaways

  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that occurs within certain seasons—typically during the fall and winter seasons. It affects up to 20 percent of all Americans.
  • Risk factors of seasonal affective disorder include being female, being young, and living far from the equator.
  • Research has shown that this disorder is related to both abnormal serotonin and cortisol levels, showing that both gut and adrenal health may play important roles in seasonal affective disorder treatment.
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