The disorder—also known as winter or seasonal depression—affects up to 5% of Americans, but rates are much higher in Northern U.S. states (10%) than in Southern states (1%).
“It helps to remember that these shortened, colder days are only temporary,” said Dr. Itai Danovitch, professor and chairman of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. “Those who suffer from seasonal depression should take an active role in managing their symptoms, but can also look forward to longer days as the seasons turn.”
Symptoms of SAD can include changes in sleep, mood, appetite and energy levels; loss of interest in activities; difficulty concentrating or making decisions, and self-critical thoughts, Danovitch said.
Getting a professional diagnosis is an important first step in easing SAD with treatments such as light therapy, vitamin supplements, exercise, sleep and counseling.
Light therapy has been shown to be one of the most effective treatments for SAD, according to Danovitch. The general recommendation is to sit or stand in front of a light box with at least 10,000 lumens for 30 to 45 minutes a day, upon wakening.
But it’s important to consult your health care provider to determine what’s best for you.
“If a clinician recommends light therapy, they will give you guidance on how to use it safely,” including how to use the light box without damaging your eyes or skin, Danovitch said in a center news release.
Vitamin D and B12 supplements are often marketed as a remedy for SAD, though there isn’t strong evidence that they’re effective. But many Americans are deficient in vitamin D and other vitamins like B12, so working with a health care provider to identify and fill any nutritional gaps may help balance mood and fight symptoms of seasonal depression.
“If you suffer from seasonal depression or have other mental health concerns, it’s especially important to review your nutrition and make sure you are getting the vitamins and nutrients you need,” Danovitch said.
Regular exercise is another way to combat SAD.
“There is good-quality evidence to suggest that exercise has positive mood-altering benefits, and there may be added benefit to spending time in nature,” Danovitch said. “I encourage going outdoors, when possible, and getting physical exertion three to four times a week for 30 or 45 minutes. That being said, not everyone has easy access to nature, and exercise is valuable no matter where you do it.”
Following a sleep schedule may also provide relief. Danovitch recommended setting an alarm, waking up promptly when it goes off, then following with light therapy.
When combined with proper diet, exercise and sleep, talk therapy has also been shown to be effective for SAD, according to Danovitch.