Well Hello Sunshine... Natural Integrative Remedies for Seasonal Affective Disorder
Once again the light shifts, the seasons change and night welcomes us into a deeper embrace.
The darker months invite the plants to slow their flurry of production, dig way DOWN and IN to the sanctuary of their core and roots. Nature's wisdom moves the animals into their safe places for deep dreaming and hibernation. In a culture obsessed with hyper activity and the bright upward, outward, forward striving for productivity, the rhythms of nature's call to slow our whole selves, move inward and deepen downward may not be shown the profound value which it deserves. Giving ourselves permission to be in synchronicity with the patterns of seasonal living can offer our lives a harmonious balance and a soulful set of healthy, deepening experiences that expand our relationship within ourselves and our greater world.
Having acknowledged that, for those of us acquainted with Seasonal Affective Disorder, the autumnal and winter months take on an added layer of experiences. If you are navigating the less desirable effects of these times then this article may have some supports to help you through.
Part of what may be affecting nearly 10 million Americans ( roughly 6% of the population mostly located in the northern regions ) struggling with Seasonal Affective Disorder is that the reduced levels of natural sunlight in the fall and winter months may cause a significant drop in serotonin and melatonin levels and/ or disrupt the body's internal biological clock known as the circadian rhythm. These drops and disruptions can lead to feelings of depression, disturbance of sleep patterns or overall low energy. Seasonal Affective Disorder should not be confused with mild winter blues. It can be as debilitating as other forms of depression. Some of the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder ( also known as S.A.D. or Seasonal Depression ) are having low energy levels/ sluggish-ness, feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day, oversleeping yet still feeling tired all the time, craving high carbohydrate foods, appetite changes, weight gain, disinterest in participating in activities you once enjoyed, achy bones and muscles, difficulty concentrating, feeling agitated or without hope, feeling worthless or having an increased sense of guilt or thoughts of death or suicide.
Many individuals are interested in effective alternatives or safe, effective, evidence based integrative additions to the prescription drugs commonly prescribed for SAD ( anti-depressants, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), or tricyclic antidepressants.)
This winter may be especially challenging on mental health with the added layers of challenge going on in the global landscape, but there are natural allies and integrative supports that are safe and effective.
Here are 7 top natural integrative supports for navigating S.A.D. to include in your pandemic winter wellness plan :
The tendency of going inward is already on the seasonal agenda. Going inward deliberately through meditation can help those who have a particularly challenging time with feeling unfocused, those who are dealing with the overload of daily toxic stress of these challenging times or who have trouble simply relaxing into good quality sleep. Meditation has been scientifically proven to boost the immune system, relieve depression and anxiety, increase productivity, help alleviate symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, help to lower blood pressure, and promote clear and creative thinking. Many of the stress relieving, neurobiological and physical benefits of meditation are on par with other chemically based treatments for these same conditions. Getting in tune with your own mind and spirit can have a dramatic and positive natural impact on overall emotional resilience and sense of well-being.
In Tibetan, the term for meditation is gompa, which means “to familiarize.” Meditation is not about attempting to turn off your thoughts or feelings. It is more about training into compassionate awareness and learning to observe your thoughts and feelings without judgment. In this way meditation is a self accepting re-familiarizing of ourselves with the fullness of our wholeness, inner selves and all of Life. This attunement may be the very gift Seasonal Affective Disorder can offer an individual should they accept the cyclical invitation inward.
One of my favorite ways to ease into regular meditation is to utilize the potent practice of the one minute meditation. There are some great wisdoms in this Book on 1 minute Meditations that can help with practical meditating for busy, modern people. We can all sustain just about any reasonable activity for one minute, so this is a great way to get started if you are new to meditating or if seasonal depression is challenging your ability to focus for longer periods of time. You can start with the one minute meditation then build your meditation practice up from there. Listen to your spirit and your breathing ... it knows. The more severe your symptoms, the more likely a longer meditation practice will support your sense of well-being.
2. Light Therapy
When the weather permits, open up those curtains and blinds to let the sunshine all the way in. Getting outside for as long as possible and following the natural light cycles of the day can help you maintain higher serotonin and melatonin levels especially throughout the winter.
Even when you can get outside for a nice walk, supplementing winter sunlight with a good quality Light Therapy Lamp first thing in the morning and on dark days helps many people get through Seasonal Affective Disorder nearly symptom free. Full spectrum white light from supplemental strong incandescent, LED or fluorescent bulbs helps provide energy and rebalance the hormonal systems and circadian rhythm, by stimulating the production of serotonin, a substance which regulates both sleep and the nervous system. Light therapy and increasing the amount of light in the home is especially helpful in the autumn months before the full onset of seasonal winter symptoms may appear. Whenever possible visiting sunny climates during the darker months can also help alleviate some symptoms.
Another type of light therapy that can be useful in treating some of the symptoms of S.A.D. is Red Light Therapy. Red and near infrared light has been scientifically shown to re-energize the body at a cellular, mitochondrial level. These wavelengths of light have been lab proven to ease muscle and joint pain and inflammation ( many people with seasonal depression have achy bones and bodies ), improve sleep quality, mood and overall energy levels. A simple 10-20 minute red and near infrared light session most days is all that's required to reap it's many, many benefits. For more info on some other benefits of Red Light Therapy check out my blogpost entitled "Simply Lightening Up". I absolutely LOVE Red Light Therapy ! It has been a game changer for so many facets of my own wellness. I'm happy to share this link to my very favorite Red Light Therapy Devices ( these are the highest quality at the best price... you're welcome! )
3. Boosting Vitamin D
Low levels of the hormone ( yes... hormone ), Vitamin D, can show up in our experience as fatigue, muscle weakness, aches, mood changes and depression. Research has also linked Vitamin D levels to quality of sleep. In the sunny months Vitamin D synthesis happens in the top layers of skin that have been exposed to the full spectrum of natural light. The ultraviolet radiation in sunlight penetrates into the epidermis and photolyzes provitamin D3 into pre-vitamin D3. Aging, sunscreens, and melanin all diminish the capacity of the skin to produce pre-vitamin D3.
In the darker months of the year when sunlight hours wane, alongside maintaining a healthy diet, boosting our levels of Vitamin D with natural food sources such as :
Egg , Sun exposed Wild Mushrooms ( high vitamin D varieties include Crimini, Portabello, Maitake and White Button ), Fortified Yogurt and dairy, Cod Liver Oil and Fatty Fish like Salmon, Canned Tuna, Sardines and Trout can help supplement the gifts of available sunlight and help our systems and hormones to better regulate themselves.
To learn more about how exposing mushrooms to sunlight increases vitamin D content, check out this article from Paul Stamets.
4. Make Positive Social Contact
Hugs, chats on the phone or on social media, eye contact ( like REAL eye contact ), walking the dog with a neighbor or friend all take on a greater benefit during long winter months for those working through the challenges of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Humans are designed to connect with the greater tribe in order to thrive and get through the seasons. For this reason it's advisable to line up a reliable family member, a friend, a supportive social media group or two and/ or a solid trained counselor in advance to be ready to be by your side whenever needed.
Be aware that if you or your loved one need free counseling, or if you or someone you know is considering self harm, there is a wealth of support on the website SAMHSA’s National Helpline, or their national hotline at 1-800-622-HELP ( 4357 ) ... or You can reach out for resources and support on the Suicide Prevention Lifeline website or call the National Hotline at 1 (800) 273-8255 should that be of help to you or your loved one.
If you are not personally dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder or if you are in a position to reach out in support of others working through it or pandemic related overload, this is the year to offer your care and support to others.... check on your neighbors, colleagues, family and even strangers wherever and whenever you can. Simple, safe gestures, offerings and contact ( even with following social distancing guidelines ) can make a positive significant difference in the mental health and well-being of our local and global community.
5. Sun herbs:
In planetary herbology, the actions of herbs on tissue states is grouped into planetary correspondences. Herbs in the "sun herbs" category are associated with vitality, energy, warmth, stimulation, and upward, outward radiance. Medicinal plants like Lemon, Cinnamon, Rosemary and St Johns Wort are all beneficial plants considered "sun" herbs that, when combined with other natural supports and a well-balanced diet, may help one navigate the various symptoms associated with seasonal depression.
Here are some favorite herbal ways to get feeling a whole lot better:
One simple winter comfort is to have a nice cup of hot lemonade made with fresh squeezed lemon juice, hot water, honey and cinnamon. Not only can detoxifying Lemon (citrus x limon) help with weight loss for weight gain associated with S.A.D., it also has mood boosting essential oils as well as beneficial digestive properties that help with sluggish winter digestion. While warming, circulatory, anti-oxidant rich ceylon Cinnamon (cinnamomum verum) helps stimulate neurons, positively influencing brain activity, aids in improving mental concentration and helps in visceral fat loss all while helping boost the immune system. Honey is an enzymatically rich, anti-microbial source of quick energy that can help soothe dry winter throats and boost our ability to fight off various infections. Not only can spicy hot lemonade made with these naturally medicinal ingredients help you bust through the beginnings of a winter cold and help with symptoms of S.A.D., it is also just plain yummy... just sayin'.
Massaging your scalp and/ or chest, neck and back with a wonderfully aromatic and circulatory Rosemary (rosemarinus officinalis) infused oil not only feels great but can help wake up your winter brain and improve concentration, memory recall and mental focus while protecting your brain from negative effects of aging and also stimulating and energizing the entire being. Another way to enjoy the benefits of Rosemary is to include this delicious, medicinal and culinary antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory herb in more of your winter cooking recipes. Mmmm
St John's Wort (hypericum perforatum) is the classic seasonal depression herb many people have successfully used to lift and brighten mood during the winter months. This little, sunny yellow flower has been used for everything from insomnia and depression to obsessive compulsive disorder, ADHD and somatic symptom disorder to healing burns, muscle pain and wounds. St. John's wort has been shown to be effective for depressive symptoms caused by low levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine. It is especially effective in the treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder when combined with light therapy. I like to use St John's Wort in either an infused oil form ( my favorite, topically or internally ) or tincture form. Since St John's Wort can increase photosensitivity or have sometimes dangerous interactions with various medications, it is advised that you talk with your healthcare provider before including it in your wellness regimen.
Due to the exceptional circumstances playing out globally this year, I'll also mention one of my very favorite (non "sun" herb) herbs for helping to relieve a sense of grief or heavy sorrow from the heart, helping to promote healthy sleep patterns and support the body's natural balance between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. Our special pandemic edition of herbal supports comes from the tree nicknamed by Traditional Chinese Medicine the " tree of full happiness", Silk Momosa (albizia julibrissin). The Silk Mimosa tree has a lovely, fluffy pink blossom that looks like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. I just love how this silly looking flower and it's leaves and tree bark can act like a natural kind of prozac. Silk Mimosa is an adaptogen that promotes a healthy response to stress, by supporting natural regulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, helping to boost overall adrenal health and emotional/ mental calm. For those who have the added layer of processing grief or heart ache during these tumultuous times, joy promoting Silk Mimosa can be an absolute Godsend.
As always, be sure to consult with your trusted healthcare provider before making changes to your supplementary or wellness regimen.
6. Playlists and pleasurable movement.
You ever notice how a great playlist can change your whole day? Turns out there's a biological basis that helps lift the spirits of music listeners. Endorphins, our bodies' natural stress relieving, pain-killing feel-good hormones, are released whenever we engage in listening to great music or when we participate in sustained pleasurable or rigorous movement. Endorphins work on the opiate receptors in the brain to stabilize the immune system and signal to the whole body a sense of overall heightened well-being. We release endorphins that help promote feelings of euphoria during exercise, times of pain and stress, while eating, listening to music, hugging or during sex. Dancing or working out to a great playlist can double down on the amount of endorphins that will saturate our wintery senses with feelings of well-being.
So get your playlists together and bust a good feeling move or two. ( yes, on those really heavy days you can totally do this in your jammies without ever getting out of bed too.... extra ups for flicking on your light therapy lamp at the same time )
If you are interested, you can learn more about some of the benefits of having a great playlist by checking out The Benefits of Music: How the Science of Music Can Help You
Color therapy has roots in ancient Egyptian culture, Ayurvedic medicine and traditional Chinese healing technique where various colors were recognized and used for their spiritual, mood enhancing, energetic or physical actions and correspondences. Ancient Egyptians thought so highly of this complimentary modality that they specially built solarium rooms with different colored glass to bathe in the light that came through. Modern science and the healing arts have rediscovered many benefits of the use of color for enhancing well-being. The practice of utilizing color therapeutically is called chromotherapy.
One of the easiest ways to get instant benefits from chromotherapy is to wear specific colored clothing and/ or use various colors of high quality, therapeutic grade Color Therapy Glasses throughout the day. Each color of the spectrum of light has a unique action in or benefit to the body, mind or spirit.
As it relates to moving through Seasonal Affective Disorder, blue is a color best avoided until the daylight hours increase. Some of the most useful colors to bring in when seasonal depression kicks in are:
Green: Green, the color of the heart chakra in ancient Indian medicine, is the most balancing of all the colors. Experts in modern color therapy consider green to be the safest color and typically start color therapy with shades of green. Whenever you're feeling restricted, hopeless, sad or depressed, green can help improve your mood. Green is the color employed by chromo-therapists to enhance emotions of joy, to expand a sense of independence, a sense of hope, strength, inner peace, serenity and love. Science has even acknowledged how being in green spaces helps patients in hospitals heal faster.
Yellow: Certain shades of yellow are used in color therapy to bring up energy, help you feel happier and encourage action. A little yellow goes a long way ( be careful not to use yellow for too long or in too bright a shade as it can reverse these effects )
Orange: Orange can be useful to increase mental energy, revitalize a sense of pleasure and connectedness, well-being and even to help revive your interest in sexuality. Orange may also help with stimulating a healthy appetite and aid in physical healing. ( use for shorter periods of time if you are prone to anxiety )
For more in depth research on the effects of chromotherapy on mood you can check out this study (short ) and the longer Critical Analysis of Chromotherapy and it's Evolution
We'll go deeper into other mood enhancing natural allies in future posts. I do hope you've found some useful natural allies here that you can integrate into your winter wellness strategies. Until then... may we honor our authentic rhythms and find our inner light deep within ourselves as the world offers the many seasons of possibility to all in existence..... May you know yourself, may you feel as complete as is humanly possible in every unique moment...and always, all ways.... THRIVE,
Aleli Estrada from Anima-Botanica.com
This post is intended for educational purposes only and is not meant to diagnose or treat any particular condition. For medical advise please consult with your trusted healthcare professional. Blessings on your wellness journey.
We'd love to connect with you here in the COMMENTS: .... What has helped you feel your best in the winter months? How has navigating Seasonal Affective Disorder brought you into a deeper relationship with yourself? Got a great feel-good playlist you'd like to share with others that's helped you through rough spots? Kindly share in the comments below ( and THANKS! Everybody loves discovering new music )