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Seasonal Affective Disorder: 5 Ways to Treat SAD without Medication

Do you get the winter blues?

Do the shorter days in the fall leave you feeling sad or down?

Do you find you have less energy and feel more tired?

Do you feel better in the spring and summer and worse in the fall and winter like clockwork?

You may be part of the 1 in 5 who experience SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder!

Like the bear, shorter days and cooler weather of fall and winter signal the body that it is time to hibernate. Then, in the spring and summer the opposite happens - reverse SAD!

SAD can be caused by disruptions in your biological clock, serotonin levels and/or melatonin levels.

These disruptions may be caused by changes in light levels through the year.

In particular, light traveling through the eye to the retina sends signals for the sleep and wake cycles influencing the production of the happy hormone Serotonin and the sleep hormone Melatonin.

Our reaction to light and the seasons is programmed into our genes and some people are more likely to experience SAD than others.

Where you live also makes a difference with people in northern regions being more likely to experience SAD than those in southern areas.

Signs of SAD include sadness, decreased activity, irritability and tiredness. Other signs include increased appetite, weight gain and decreased sexual interest.

In the autumn months I find patients who are well controlled on antidepressants or antianxiety medication during the summer suddenly show up in my office to request an increase.

But there are ways to treat SAD without medication!

5 Ways to Treat SAD without Medication

1. Light Therapy

Special lamps designed for light therapy can provide relief of SAD especially when combined with therapy.

They provide an exposure to 10,000 lux of light and should emit as little UV light as possible.

Typical recommendations include:

  • Use within the first hour of waking up in the morning

  • Start with 5-10 minutes and work your way up to 20-30 minutes

  • Position the light 16 to 24 inches away from the face

  • Use it with eyes open, but not directly looking at the light

Those with bipolar disorder or eye problems such as glaucoma, cataracts or damage from diabetes should consult their primary care provider before starting light therapy.

You can purchase a light therapy device online here or search sites like Amazon for reviews to determine which one might be best for you.

2. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

CBT combined with light therapy has been found to be even more effective at combating SAD.

CBT involves 10-12 sessions where you learn to recognize and control how your thoughts affect feelings and behaviours.

Speak with your primary care provider about a referral for CBT for SAD.

3. Vitamin D Supplementation

Vitamin D is the sunshine vitamin. Our bodies naturally make Vitamin D with light exposure.

It is responsible for several essential processes including mental health and bone health.

However, since we spend so much time indoors through the year and especially in the fall and winter, most people are deficient.

Nearly every Canadian can benefit from Vitamin D supplementation year-round. I recommend 1000-2000IU daily.

3. Melatonin

Melatonin is made by a small gland in the brain and helps to regulate sleep.

Melatonin levels should be high before bed and low in the morning. If you’re curious about your levels, they can be tested through saliva samples.

Many people have a dysfunctional melatonin system to begin with that can be compounded in winter.

Production of melatonin is affected by light exposure that changes with the seasons. It is also affected by artificial light from cell phones and computer screens. Protect your eyes from blue light exposure from screens with apps like f.lux.

Taking Melatonin in the evening before bed can give you an extra nudge toward sleep and reset your hormonal system.

Talk to your primary care provider about the right melatonin dose for you.

4. Exercise

Exercise helps to relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Participating in exercise that you enjoy boosts serotonin levels and helps you get a better sleep at night.

But, participating in exercise against your will boosts stress hormones!

So, whether its running, lifting weights, swimming or dancing, aim for 30 minutes a day or 150 minutes a week or exercise that you enjoy!

5. Get Some Sun

Even in the winter or on cloudy days the sun can help you.

Bundle up and talk a long walk or sit outside and soak up the sun.

Keep your indoor environment bright by opening the blinds and sit by windows in your office.


SAD is a real and significant problem.

Recognizing your symptoms is the first step towards being able to take charge and feel better!

If you think you might be experiencing SAD speak with your primary care provider for more advice.

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