5 natural cures for seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

Sebastian von Holstein
Sunday, 28th October 2012

Every year, around 10% of us go through what is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also reffered to as the winter blues or seasonal depression. Here are 5 natural ways to help you combat SAD.

As you would expect, cases of SAD are much higher in cold, dark places but it is also largely a symptom of the modern world. It is estimated that 75% of the population used to work outdoors in natural outdoor light as opposed to only 10% presently. Concentrated city environments all see a higher number of sufferers due to high office hours and less time spent outdoors. 

Symptoms usually occur around October/November time when the days shorten and the light diminishes. These will persist through to late February/March and disappear through spring.

Do you know that you suffer from SAD?

What are the Symptoms of SAD

There are several symptoms associated with SAD but here are the most common ones:

– Lethargy, lacking in energy, unable to carry out a normal routine

– A need for more sleep, while still suffering from low energy during the day and experiencing disturbed nights

– Anxiety, inability to cope

– Social problems, irritability, not wanting to see people

– Sadness and light depression, feelings of gloom and despondency for no apparent reason

– Increased appetite, with a particular craving for carbohydrates and foods containing sugar

5 Ways to Treat SAD Naturally

1. Light Therapy 

Melatonin and Serotonin are the two hormones that control our energy levels. When we wake up to the daylight, we produce seratonin, which keeps us awake and focused. In the dark winter months, with a lack of outdoor exposure, the body produces excess levels of melatonin making us sleepy and increasing our risk of depression.

Light therapy aims to mimic the summer light levels during winter-time, helping to produce more serotonin. There is a huge selection of medically approved light boxes and while they can be expensive, many SAD sufferers report great improvements in a relatively short period of time (avg 1-2 weeks).

Depending on the style of light you choose, your time in front of the light will vary between 20 minutes and 2 hours. While this may seem a long time to spare per day, lightboxes can be placed on your desk as you work, on the kitchen table as you eat or by your side while you read.

2. Exercise Yourself to Health and Wellbeing!

Exercise is a vital stimulant when feeling low and helps the release of endorphins. There are many ways to make a little exercise part of your daily routine and you will reap the benefits fairly quickly. If you exercise outside rather than in a gym, you will also be exposing yourself to natural outdoor light, which is precisely what is needed to help restore your circadian rhythm.

Start with a light jog or maybe consider getting hold of a bicycle. Don't forget these are modes of transport too so include them in your daily routine. Consider commuting to work on a bicycle instead of taking the bus, tube or driving a car. It is a superb way to begin your day as you will be releasing seratonin, exposing yourself to natural light all the while getting fit and healthy, which helps to increase general wellbeing.

Get hold of a bike or some running shoes

3. Break Away From Stimulants

When the weather turns cold and the mornings greet us with darkness, we often resort to stimulants. Coffee to wake up, sugar to keep us happy and numb and then perhaps a glass of wine to relax in the evenings.

Unfortunately these become coping mechanisms and force our bodies into unnatural states of high and low. It is particularly recommended that you cut these stimulants out as they undoubtedly aggravate symptoms linked to all types of depression including SAD. While they may help in the moment you consume them, you are subjecting your body to extreme mood variables – what goes up must come down!

Instead, eat healthy, wholesome food – it will benefit you in the long run.

Cut out caffeine, sucrose (sugar) and alcohol 

4. Set Goals and Create a daily routine

When feeling the effects of SAD, it is very easy to retract and feel feelings of worthlessness and despair. You may feel unable to carry out the simplest of tasks

The best thing to counteract this is to create manageable goals. These might be very simple to begin with – for instance you may have decided to eat well everyday. In this case, pull out those dusty cookbooks and set aside some time to cook everyday. Creating a routine like this prevents one day from just blurring into the next. 

Your goals should benefit you and your wellbeing. An example of this might be your decision to cycle into work every wednesday and/or cook a delicious healthy dinner for friends on a friday. You may even consider taking a few minutes to meditate ever morning, which will give you time for yourself and set you up for the day. Gently over a period of time and as you start to improve you can strive for bigger, more challenging goals.

5. St John's Wort (Hypericum) Tincture

St John's wort is now commonly known as the alternative anti-depressant and is highly effective in combating some of the symptoms associated with SAD. The one you are most likely to come across is A.Vogel's Hypericum Tincture, of which it is recommended you take 20 drops twice a day with water. 

In the wonderful Hedgerow Medicine book, Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal explain that St John's wort contains hypericin, which "interferes with monoamine oxidase (MAO), which contributes to depression. Pharmaceutical products also act as MAO inhibitors, but St John's wort is a slow treatment, and, crucially, has few side effects."

It is also used to treat nervous depression and can help with sleep and your body's absorption of nutrients, helping to restore vitality and wellbeing. While it provides a generally safe alternative to drugs such as Prozac, side-effects may a affect a very small proportion of people including diahorrea and skin sensitivity to the sun. It is also recommended that you do not take St John's wort while on other medication as it may interfere with these. If in doubt, speak to a doctor or wellbeing practitioner.

DISCLAIMER: While we have provided some of the best ways to treat SAD naturally, it must be understood that depression is a serious condition – if in doubt always seek professional medical advice.

Sources and further information:


Sebastian von Holstein is the online editor for permaculture.co.uk and also the founder of the newly launched Von Holstein Group, which aims to restore health and balance to communities through the arts, design and architecture.