Natural Ways to Beat the Winter Blues

Do you experience the winter blues, or full-blown seasonal affective disorder? These natural remedies may help.


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I'm looking out my window and the sky is solid gray. So's my mood. I'm no fan of winter, especially here in the city where there are no interesting, stark landscapes to enjoy.

It's the dark I hate. From the first Sunday in November when daylight saving time ends (my least favorite day of the year) until the second Sunday in March (my favorite, except maybe for Oscar night) when it starts again, I'm ever-so-slightly depressed. The holidays have distracted me from feeling blue, but the next six to eight weeks will make me feel like I'm slogging through a gigantic sea of oatmeal.

Medically speaking, blues like mine are known as winter-onset seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression triggered by the change in seasons. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, some 500,000 Americans have the full-blown condition; another 10% to 20% of us experience a milder form. It's more common in women and residents of northern states, where winters are longer and drearier. The checklist of symptoms includes:

  • Change in appetite, especially a craving for sweets or starches
  • Weight gain
  • Fatigue
  • Tendency to oversleep
  • Difficulty in concentrating
  • Irritability/anxiety
  • Avoidance of social situations
  • Increased sensitivity to social rejection (wonder how they measured that one?)
Given these symptoms, the half-a-million estimate seems pretty low, if you ask me. Every single one of my friends has at least a couple of these feelings, and I can tick off fatigue, anxiety, concentration problems, and maybe some weight gain and carb cravings.

Standard treatments for SAD include light therapy, drugs, and psychotherapy. To learn more about natural approaches to tackling mild winter-blues symptoms, I talked to one of my go-to experts: Martha Howard, MD, medical director of Wellness Associates of Chicago. She's one of the country's earliest pioneers in the practice of integrative medicine. Since the late 1970s, she's been using traditional Chinese medicine (she's a licensed acupuncturist), herbal medicine, and other natural approaches in her practice—long before doing so became fashionable. Here's her advice:

  • Take the best preventive action next fall—before winter begins. Between October 1 and October 15, go somewhere with a lot of sun and spend time outside four hours a day, four days in a row. This really works, says Dr. Howard.
  • Get a light therapy desk lamp (like those from Northern Light Technologies). Put it right next to your computer and use it at least one hour a day, especially in the early evening. These high-intensity lamps are easier to fit into good old "real life" than using those expensive light boxes that you're supposed to bask in front of for 45 minutes in the morning, says Dr. Howard. I mean, who's got an 45 extra minutes in the morning?
  • Exercise at least four to six times a week for 30 to 45 minutes. This can be a 2-mile-an-hour walk on the treadmill, or you can even walk through the halls and up and down the stairs of your house or building. Do something, anything.
  • Acupuncture and Chinese herbs work well for some people, but have to be tailored to the individual by a TCM practitioner.
  • Try SAM-e (S-Adenosyl-L-Methionine). This naturally occurring bodily compound helps produce and regulate hormones, including the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine; low levels of these are associated with depression. Dr. Howard recommends taking 400 to 800 milligrams daily. Brands that passed independent tests for potency, conducted by ConsumerLab.com, include GNC, Natrol, and NutraLife. St. John's wort, which has been touted as a SAD remedy, doesn't seem to be effective for relieving seasonal affective disorder, Dr. Howard notes.
  • Take a fish oil supplement with at least 600 milligrams of combined EPA/DHA daily.
  • Take 500 milligrams of vitamin C three to four times a day with plenty of water, and a B-complex vitamin.
  • If you feel hopeless or in a state of deep despair during the winter, see your health-care practitioner. You may need an antidepressant medication during the November to April season, says Dr. Howard. Low-dose Zoloft or Lexapro can be good choices, she says.
Sara Altshul
Last Updated: November 30, 2012

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