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Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) Symptoms & Treatment – 8 Frugal Ways to Beat Winter Depression

It’s that time of year again. The days are getting shorter and the temperature is heading south, which is probably exactly what you’d like to do. You’re productivity drops, you’re tired, and you just can’t seem to get it together. These are some of the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and if you suffer from them, you might be looking at the calendar with a sense of dread.

What Is SAD?

Seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression that occurs mainly during the winter months. Some people call it the “winter blues” or “winter doldrums,” but psychologists have identified SAD as a true depressive condition.

According to CNN, up to 20% of the population (over 10 million Americans) suffers in some way from seasonal affective disorder, and 4% to 6% experience serious effects from the condition. Statistically, it most often affects women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, although plenty of men experience it as well.

How do you know if you have SAD? According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms include:

  • Depression
  • Hopelessness
  • Anxiety
  • Loss of energy
  • Social withdrawal
  • Oversleeping
  • Decreased interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Appetite changes (especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates)
  • Weight gain
  • Difficulty concentrating and processing information

Doctors aren’t precisely sure what causes SAD, but they believe the reduced amount of sunlight in the winter months contributes to a drop in our levels of melatonin and serotonin levels – hormones that regulate mood. Diminished sunlight can also disrupt our circadian rhythms (our body clock) which can lead to feelings of fatigue and depression.

8 Strategies for Treating SAD

I’ve battled seasonal affective disorder for years. I grew up in sunny Louisiana but now live in cold, cloudy Michigan. As soon as the bright October days start to wind down, my symptoms start. And I’m certainly not alone.

The good news is that over the years, I’ve come up with plenty of ways to combat seasonal affective disorder on my own. Now, I manage to get through the winter months with relative ease.

If you’re one of the many people who suffer from this condition, here are eight easy, inexpensive strategies for coping with SAD.

1. Take Fish Oil Supplements

I consider fish oil supplements to be the foundation of my SAD treatment every year. I first learned about the effectiveness of fish oil in Dr. Normal Rosenthal’s book, “Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder.” He describes who scientists studied the Inuit (Eskimo) people, who have lived for thousands of years in the cold, harsh climate of the Arctic.

The Inuits are exposed to winter conditions most of us can’t even imagine. And yet, they don’t suffer from SAD. They’re incredibly happy people overall. Scientists couldn’t figure out why none of them experienced depression, especially when they have to go months without any sunlight at all.

The answer turned out to be their diet, among other things, like genetics and culture. The Inuit, like many other cold-climate cultures, eat a ton of cold-water fish. And these fish are loaded with Omega-3 fatty acids.

Taking fish oil supplements – specifically, high-quality fish oil that comes from cold-water fish like salmon, mackerel, and herring – is a great way to alleviate SAD symptoms. I start taking fish oil in mid- to late October and don’t miss a day until spring sets in.

2. Get Enough Vitamin D

No matter the season, I know when I haven’t had enough sun. My mood goes down. That’s because when your body is exposed to the sun, it creates vitamin D. When there’s a vitamin D deficiency in the body, it leads to fatigue and depression.

Try drinking a few glasses of milk fortified with vitamin D milk a day or taking vitamin D supplements or a multivitamin that includes D. It’s an easy way to combat the negative effects of winter’s shorter, darker days.

3. Get Outdoors

When it’s 20 degrees Fahrenheit out and there’s a stiff wind, it’s not easy to force yourself outside. But making yourself go get some sun and some easy, free aerobic exercise is one of the best ways to combat SAD. Take a walk, go snowshoeing, make a snowman – do whatever it takes to get outside at least once a day.

Yes, it’s hard. And yes, it takes discipline. But I promise that if you do it on a regular basis, despite the bone-chilling weather, it will help boost your mood and energy.

4. Enjoy Some Aromatherapy

Certain scents, like peppermint and rosemary, have been proven to make us feel more awake, alert, and positive.

I burn essential oils by my desk during the winter, and I notice a real difference in my outlook when I breathe in those scents, especially peppermint. Other scents like satsuma and lemon are also effective. If you don’t have an essential oil diffuser, you can purchase one for under $30.

5. Surround Yourself With Color

Last year, I painted every room in my house a bright, popping color. After all, I figured, I have to look at neutral colors outside all the time during the winter – I sure don’t want to look at them indoors as well!

I couldn’t believe what a big difference it made. My kitchen is a bright, Tuscan orange that looks like a warm, red sunset. My dining room reminds me of green grass. My bedroom reminds me of the ocean. Every room makes me feel happy because it’s alive with color.

Try this in your own home. Pick a room you spend a lot of time in, and try a vibrant paint in there. Painting a room is a great affordable DIY home improvement project, and you’ll be surprised at how much it picks up your mood. (Just be sure you keep the windows open for ventilation, even though it’s cold outside.)

6. Take a Class or Start a Project

Last winter, I took a fencing class. This year, I’m taking jujitsu.

Taking a class can help keep your mind off the winter gloom, particularly if it’s a class that gets you out of the house and into a group of people. Take a class that interests you, whether it’s pottery, Zumba, knitting, figure drawing, or something else.

Alternatively, use the winter indoor time to lose yourself in a project you’ve been wanting to do for some time but haven’t gotten around to. Whatever you decide, keep yourself busy with something you enjoy.

7. Listen to Music

Music is known to affect people emotionally in many different ways. Find music you enjoy, something that really brightens your heart and makes you feel joy. Let it flow through your house, car, or headphones when you start feeling down. Music can distract you and help keep your mind off things, like the winter cold and lack of sunlight.

8. Try Light Therapy

There are several kinds of sun lamps out there, and while they cost more than a few gallons of vitamin D milk, they’re extremely effective for some people.

Sun lamps are designed to simulate the look of the sun and trick your body into creating vitamin Dr. I grabbed a couple of “daylight” light bulbs from a hardware store and put them in some lamps around the house to get a similar effect.

Final Word

If you find the tips here are not enough to manage your SAD symptoms, it’s worth considering investing in a proper lightbox, which many doctors and psychologists feel is one of the most effective treatments for SAD. And if your symptoms are impacting your sleep or work, and you can’t manage them on your own, see your doctor.

Do you suffer from SAD? What strategies do you use to avoid getting too down during those harsh winter days?

(photo credit: vonSchnauzer)

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.

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