How To Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder

Winter is here, and it can bring with it bouts of the blues. Seasonal Affective Disorder (appropriately abbreviated SAD) is your body’s response to the darker, shorter days of autumn and winter. Generally, SAD is subtle. While some people do plunge into a deep depression as the seasons change, more often the winter blues are mild. An estimated 10-20% of Americans get mild SAD with the changing seasons, with higher risk in darker, more northern locales; if you do get it, SAD usually starts in your 20s, and it tapers off as you age [1]. Common symptoms include:

  • Increased sleep
  • Fatigue
  • Apathy
  • Depressed mood
  • Trouble focusing

Fortunately, you can hack SAD. Three effective methods are light therapy, supplementation, and exercise. Here’s a closer look at each one.


Bright light therapy: the seasonal antidepressant

A primary reason for SAD is the decreased daylight that comes with the colder months. The shortened days throw off your circadian rhythm so you have trouble sleeping. Adding more light to your day can reverse seasonal depression. One placebo-controlled, double-blind study found that 30 minutes of bright, non-UV, white fluorescent light first thing in the morning improved seasonal depression as well as Prozac did [2], and a 2005 review of light therapy research found that bright white or blue light and antidepressant treatment are equally effective at relieving SAD [3].

One of the best sources of light is a good old-fashioned work lamp, like the ones construction workers use on job sites. A halogen work lamp will run you about $40, and it’ll be easier on your eyes than a fluorescent one will. These things are BRIGHT. Shine one or two work lamps on yourself for half an hour right when you get up. Make sure the light is hitting your eyes at an angle; looking directly into a work lamp can damage your retinas.

Avoiding bright light at night is important, too. Bright white or blue light suppresses the sleep hormone melatonin [4], and low evening melatonin levels can decrease your sleep quality. Use the free app f.lux to filter blue light from your computer after sunset, and opt for dim, amber or red light at night. These low-blue night lights work well.

Tweak your supplements

As the seasons change, you may want to change your supplements, too. Decreased sunlight means you’re probably getting less vitamin D than you were during summer. You make vitamin D in response to UV-B light, and while you get plenty of UV-B from the sun, many indoor lights have UV filters. Vitamin D deficiency is common [6], and low vitamin D links with poor sleep [7]. Taking a high-quality vitamin D3 supplement like in the morning may help you sleep better (don’t take it at night – D3 suppresses melatonin). (Vitamins A, D, and K are complementary fat-soluble vitamins that work together for heart, bone, and immune health. You can ingest all of them in one supplement now: Vitamins A-D-K.) Also get a blood test to check your vitamin D levels before increasing the amount you take.

St. John’s wort also stabilizes mood in depressed people, often performing as well as low-dose prescription antidepressants without the antidepressants’ side effects or withdrawal [5,6,7]. While St. John’s wort is excellent taken alone, it can decrease the effectiveness of common medications, including blood thinners, antivirals, and birth control pills, and it can increase the effect of SSRIs [8]. Before you add St. John’s wort to your winter supplement list, check here to see if interacts with anything you’re taking.

Move more

Exercise is great for mood. According to a review of more than 40 studies, aerobic exercise like running improves symptoms of depression considerably, strength training is even more effective at boosting mood, and the combination of the two works best [8]. While any movement is good movement, high-intensity interval training will give you the biggest mood boost in the shortest time.

Exercise also increases energy levels [8], making it ideal for beating the mid-afternoon slump that comes from a 4pm sunset. If you find you aren’t motivated to go to the gym, join a recreational sports league, take a dance, yoga, or martial arts class, chase your kids around the house – whatever makes movement fun. Find something active you enjoy. Adults benefit from playtime, too.

Have you tried these seasonal affective disorder hacks before? Do you have any of your own to add? As always, personal stories and recommendations are great. Thanks for reading!


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Dave Asprey

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