For some people, getting into the festive winter spirit can be comforting and exciting. But for many people who struggle with seasonal depression or seasonal affective disorder (SAD), winter's colder temperatures and shorter, darker days can feel dreadful. The lack of sunlight this time of year can also cause low levels of vitamin D, which may contribute to mood changes like depression. You might wonder, then, if taking a vitamin D supplement — or eating more vitamin D-rich foods — can help ease symptoms of SAD. POPSUGAR spoke with experts to find out.
Can Vitamin D Help With Seasonal Depression?
People who experience depression have lower levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood. According to a 2015 study, vitamin D can activate serotonin in the brain. It would make sense then that taking a supplement could help ease depression, especially at times when you may struggle to get vitamin D naturally. But while boosting your levels of vitamin D can be beneficial, supplements alone are not a proper treatment for SAD.
"It's not recommended to treat seasonal depression solely with vitamin D," Anisha Patel-Dunn, DO, chief medical officer of LifeStance Health, told POPSUGAR. "If you recognize that something is 'off,' or if you're feeling low or not enjoying things like you used to, it's important to reach out to a licensed therapist for help."
Other Ways to Ease Symptoms of Seasonal Depression
Vitamin D supplements alone aren't effective for combating symptoms of SAD. Instead, it's crucial to look to other forms of treatment. Consider the following methods to help alleviate seasonal depression.
1. Adjust your morning and nighttime routines.
Moving with, rather than against, the changing seasons can be an effective way to cope. "Winter-onset SAD may be caused by the decreased amount of sunlight in the fall and winter, which affects your biological clock, or circadian rhythm," nutritionist Shauna Hatcher, MSPH, told POPSUGAR. "The changing of the seasons can throw off the body's melatonin balance, which affects sleep patterns and mood in the long run."
Pay attention to how much sleep you're getting each night, and try to set an earlier bedtime if needed. According to psychiatrist Michel Mennesson, MD, adjusting your morning routine is also a great way to work with the shortening days. "Consider keeping a regular circadian rhythm of getting up early, closer to sunrise, and using an alarm clock with a progressive sunrise effect," Dr. Mennesson told POPSUGAR.
2. Take a walk in the morning.
It's important to seize what little daylight you have during the winter months. "People struggling with SAD might consider increasing their exposure to sunlight, such as spending at least 30 minutes outside in early morning light," Dr. Mennesson explained. Squeezing in a half hour to stretch your legs before you begin the day may have a monumental impact on your mood.
3. Consider light therapy.
Light therapy, or the use of artificial light, has been studied in the treatment of SAD. In this type of treatment, a person sits near a light therapy box device that emits a bright light, imitating natural light. "A person struggling with SAD might consider high-intensity light therapy as it's highly effective and is the intervention of choice if other methods are not helpful," Dr. Mennesson said. "However, it is not innocuous, as it can cause decreased appetite, irritability, and even manic responses."
Shaking off winter sluggishness can feel daunting, especially if the holiday season is a vulnerable time for you. While making adjustments to your routine, soaking in as much daylight as you can, and eating a diet rich in essential nutrients like vitamin D can help, it's important to talk to a doctor or therapist who can help set up a treatment plan based on your needs.