Naturopathic Treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Find your happy place all year long with naturopathic treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that most commonly impacts people living in cold weather and dark winter places. Not surprisingly, incidence of SAD depends largely on where you live. For instance, in the United States, 9.7 percent of people in New Hampshire suffer from the condition, while only 1.4 percent in Florida report problems. For many people who suffer with SAD, symptoms begin in the fall and last through the winter. It affects women more than me and it is not very common in children. The medical definition, according to the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), says:  “Depression and other symptoms for at least two consecutive years, during the same season every year. Periods of depression have been followed by periods without depression. There are no other explanations for the changes in mood or behavior.”

Like major depression, symptoms may include feeling depressed for a large part of the day, nearly every day, feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, low energy, and losing interest in activities once enjoyed. People often experience sleep disturbances (too much or not enough); changes in food cravings (particularly carbohydrates), appetite, or weight; difficulty concentrating, irritability, and difficulty getting along with others. Some withdraw from social interactions and may have thoughts of death or suicide. A naturopathic doctor may also rule out other  physical illnesses that might cause similar symptoms such as mononucleosis or thyroid disease.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

What does sunshine have to do with Seasonal Affective Disorder? 

Winter months provide less sun, particularly in colder climates, which can change moods.

The cause of SAD has been a focus of a great deal of research. Primarily, the reduced level of sunshine in autumn and winter can disrupt one’s internal clock. This can lead to feelings of depression. In the winter months, there is a drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter), that affects mood. Longer stretches of daily darkness increase melatonin levels, which make people sleepier and may impact mood. 

Some believe there is an evolutionary cause for SAD, in that with lower energy output, demand for calories is reduced during the months when less food is available. It’s a theory, but that does not help us in modern society. For those who suffer with SAD there are gentle, effective and safe naturopathic approaches to keep moods in a more balanced state throughout the year. 

Light therapy for SAD 

Conventional treatment for SAD may include light therapy, psychotherapy, and medications. Naturopathic doctors also recommend light therapy and talk therapy, with the addition of prescriptive exercise, alongside nutritional and botanical medicine approaches.

Light therapy, a non-invasive, non-pharmaceutical approach, is effective for the treatment of  SAD. Treatment includes sitting in front of a full-spectrum light box first thing in the morning, for a half hour from fall until the beginning of spring. It is advisable to sit close to the light source but do not look at the light. It’s important to note light therapy boxes filter out dangerous UV light, the same type of damaging light found in tanning beds, which is not effective for SAD. 

The treatment is safe, but some drugs and herbal supplements may cause the retina to be more sensitive to light. A person using the drug Lithium, the nutritional supplement melatonin, or the botanical medicine St. John’s wort, should use special caution when using a light box. Light therapy is also contraindicated for those who have conditions where the skin is very sensitive to light, such as lupus. Light therapy is also not appropriate for those with bipolar disorder as it may trigger a manic episode.

Other naturopathic recommendations 

Exercise also offers clear benefits for those who suffer with SAD because it helps raise one’s threshold for feeling stress. It actually helps dissipate stress and helps the body be better perfused (i.e., gets the blood moving), which amplifies other treatment approaches.

Adopting a positive attitude and a posture of gratitude as much as is possible can help with depression of all kinds. The more we study gratitude, the more we learn of its powerful impact. 

Dietary supplements for SAD

There are a number of dietary supplements that show promise as part of a medically supervised treatment. Some studies show that supplementing with S-Adenosylmethionine (SAMe) offers help for SAD. This and other supplements need a doctor’s oversight, however, as they can interact with other medications and affect one’s quality of moods. 

Here are other options a naturopathic doctor may suggest: 

Seasonal Affective Disorder Tips InfoG

Naturopathic doctors also have ample training in botanical medicines and can put it to good use in helping those with SAD. The herb St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) may have a positive impact on SAD and depression. Though as mentioned, it should not be used with light therapy (see above). It is also not to be used if you are taking antiretrovirals, birth control pills, or antidepressant drugs like the SSRI Celexa or Prozac, so do not self-medicate.

  • Turmeric (Curcuma longa): known for its anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer attributes, has also been studied and shown to help with symptoms of depression.
  • Saffron (Crocus sativus): also shows a positive impact on depressive tendency and can be taken for those with SAD. 
  • B vitamins: supplementing with B vitamins may help with depressive symptoms. It’s also important to know that B vitamins may increase the way prescription antidepressants work, so if you take both, your dosing might need to be adjusted. Speak to your prescribing physician for guidance.
  • Fish oil: can also be helpful in addressing symptoms of depression like those found in SAD. There have been some useful studies about the lack of seasonal affective disorder in Icelandic people. Here the average hours of sunshine go from nine hours a day in October to four hours a day in deep winter. Yet there is very low incidence of SAD. The hypothesis is that Icelanders consume a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids. 
  • Vitamin D: may also be helpful for those with SAD. So many people are deficient in vitamin D deficient, especially during months with less sunshine, so it makes sense to have your blood levels of vitamin D tested and supplement if indicated.
  • Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP): 5-HTP is needed for us to create serotonin from the amino acid, L-tryptophan and is effective for treating depression. Finding the right dosage requires a trained medical professional. For those taking an SSRI, an antidepressant drug that inhibits the reabsorption of serotonin by neurons, 5-HTP will increase serotonin levels. So again, careful dosing is in order. Consult a naturopathic doctor to ensure you prescribed the right dosage.

With extensive training in therapeutic nutrition, naturopathic doctors also recommend a balanced, appropriate-for-you diet, based on your past history and current overall health with an eye to understanding your cultural and personal food preferences.

Just because the weather is cold and the days are short does not mean you have to be miserable and down. Effective naturopathic medicine approaches to SAD have helped many people find their happier place throughout the year.

This article is provided by the Institute for Natural Medicine, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, partnered with the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. INM’s mission is to transform healthcare in America by increasing both public awareness of naturopathic medicine and access to naturopathic doctors for patients. INM believes that naturopathic medicine, with its unique principles and practices, has the potential to reverse the tide of chronic illness that overwhelms existing health care systems and to empower people to achieve and maintain their optimal lifelong health. INM strives to achieve this mission through the following  initiatives:

  • Education – Reveal the unique benefits and outcomes of naturopathic medicine
  • Access – Connect patients to licensed naturopathic doctors
  • Research – Expand quality research of this complex and comprehensive system of medicine

Dr. Rothenberg is a contributor to INM and practicing licensed naturopathic doctor in Northampton, Massachusetts. Dr. Rothenberg is the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians 2017 Physician of the Year. Dr. Rothenberg's writing can be found on, Better Nutrition's Naturopathic Health Hub, Medium, Thrive Global, and The Huff Post. She is the proud mother of 3 adult children.

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Deb Hubers

Debra Hubers is a serial entrepreneur and has started seven businesses; ranging from an advanced genomics to an employer health care purchasing cooperative. Deb has over 35 years of experience in healthcare finance, education, technology, and pharmacogenomics.

Ms. Hubers has dedicated her career to measuring and improving healthcare outcomes. Her expertise is leveraging technology to deliver personalized, preventative medicine. Ms. Hubers co-founded La Vita Compounding Pharmacy in 2007. Collaborating with her business partner, physicians and strategic partners, Deb has grown La Vita to be one of the most respected and sought-after personalized medicine providers on the west coast. She is also Co-Founder of EpigeneticsRx, a leading provider of precise, personalized, prevention which positively impacts genetic expression.

Alex Keller, ND

Dr. Alex Keller, ND, AFMCP is a graduate of the University of Ottawa with an Honours Bachelor in Health Sciences and Psychology. Although originally intending to attend conventional medical school, following a three-month volunteer internship at a rural Kenyan hospital where he observed how doctors used local food to treat patients, he shifted his career goals and pursued a degree in naturopathic medicine at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto.

After one year of practicing with the esteemed Dr. Chris Pickrell, ND, RH in a community acupuncture setting, in 2015 he and his wife Dr. Jenn Keller, ND moved to rural Ottawa, Canada where they started an organic farm and retreat center. In the same year, Alex and his athletic therapist sister Jess Keller combined their practices to form Keller Active Health, an integrative physical therapy clinic.

Ever curious and passionate about the education of evidence-based natural medicine, in 2017, Dr. Keller joined a fledgling Ottawa-based health tech startup named Fullscript. He serves as its Medical Director and oversees the development of medical education content for practitioners across North America.

Prior to medicine, Alex worked in the renewable energy sector, where he developed a deep passion for sustainable agriculture and environmental stewardship. This connection between medicine and agriculture now drives Alex to focus much of his energy on bringing awareness to the quality and sourcing standards in the supplement and organic agriculture supply chains.

Today, he splits his professional time practicing as a clinician, working for Fullscript, and expanding the farming operation while chasing his kids with Jenn and occasionally running ultra-marathon trail races. He is also currently completing an Executive MBA through the Quantic School of Business & Technology with a focus on supply chain innovation.

Pamela Snider, ND

Pamela Snider, ND, is Executive and Senior Editor for the Foundations of Naturopathic Medicine Project, producing a first of its kind international textbook of Naturopathic medicine through a series of international retreats and symposia. A nationally recognized integrative health and policy leader, she is active in both national and regional integrative health initiatives. Dr. Snider serves on the Board of Directors, was founding Executive Director and co-founder of the Academic Consortium for Integrative Health (ACIH/ACCAHCa consortium of the councils of schools, accrediting agencies and certifying bodies of the licensed, traditional and emerging integrative health professions, and is currently Vice Chair and co-founder of the Integrative Health Policy Consortium (IHPC).  Dr. Snider served as a founding Board Member of the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine from 2014-2016. Her public policy work includes completing a two year appointment to the DHHS Center For Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) Medicare Coverage Advisory Committee (MCAC); serving as a Steering Committee Member for  the HRSA funded American College of Preventive Medicine NCCIM Integrative Medicine in Preventive Medicine Residency program, co-directing in USPHS Region X the Building Bridges Between Provider Communities Group, an exploration of interdisciplinary collaboration and common ground between public health and CAM; serving for 22 years on Washington State’s Health Professional Loan Repayment and Scholarship Program Advisory Committee (HPLRSP); providing technical assistance to and developing key language for the enabling legislation for NIH Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCIH/NCCAM); and staffing Joseph Pizzorno ND during his appointment as Commissioner on the White House Commission on CAM Policy.

From 1994-2003, Dr. Snider served as Associate Dean for Public and Professional Affairs and Naturopathic Medicine at Bastyr University, dividing her work between academic and public affairs activities, including chairing the Naturopathic Medicine Program Curriculum Review Committee.  Dr. Snider has been teaching, publishing and lecturing widely on Naturopathic philosophy, theory integrative health, public policy, and other topics for over 30 years. Currently, an Associate Professor at National University of Natural Medicine (NUNM) in Portland, OR, Dr. Snider also continues at Bastyr University in her 22nd year as a faculty member teaching naturopathic medicine history, clinical theory, and global context. Among her Naturopathic medicine professional roles she serves on the Institute for Natural Medicine’s Leadership Council.  In 1989, she co-led the naturopathic profession with Dr. Jared Zeff, in developing a unifying definition of naturopathic medicine and its principles of practice adopted unanimously by the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP) House of Delegates. She was a co-investigator in the 2004 NIH NCCAM research study, the North American Naturopathic Medical Research Agenda and CAM Advisor in NIHCCAM’s Financing Integrative Health Care (University of Washington).  Her areas of experience include healthcare education; naturopathic and interdisciplinary clinical theory, curriculum development; clinical practice; government and legislative affairs, public policy, interdisciplinary collaboration, and community organizing.  Dr. Snider has received the Ontario Naturopathic Physician of the Year Award, the Physician of the Year Award from the AANP, the President’s Outstanding Vision Award and Distinguished Alumnus Award at Bastyr University, AANP’s President’s Award, an honorary Doctorate of Naturopathic Philosophy from the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine (CCNM), the William A Mitchell Vis Award from the AANP and The Gathering – NMSA’s Beacon Award. She received her ND degree in 1982 from Bastyr University of Natural Health Sciences and is a licensed naturopathic physician in the State of Washington. She lives with her husband and children at their homestead in North Bend Washington, in the beautiful mountain to sea landscape and home of The Revival – Restore the Vis, an annual student-led community gathering.

Susan Haeger

Susan Haeger is Founder/Principal of Transformative Health Solutions Inc. She has applied her twenty plus years in executive leadership to help shape and drive adoption of progressive health policy for whole person healthcare. She was a section contributor to the 2021 INM/AANP published professional white paper, Naturopathic Physicians as Whole Health Specialists: The Future is Whole Person Health Care that provides supporting evidence for the profession’s significant and unique contributions to preventive, whole person care and models of integrative clinical practice.

Bruce Barlean

Bruce Barlean is an owner and founder of Barlean’s, a global dietary supplement manufacturer located in the Pacific Northwest in Ferndale, WA. Bruce has been actively involved in the Natural Products industry since 1989 and is passionate about making a difference in the world and positively impacting the lives of others.

Bruce believes that people can make a difference in the world through ordinary purchases. He is committed to improving the quality of life for every person on the planet by making the best products and by using the profits to support outreach programs. Bruce summarizes it simply, “We make good stuff to do good stuff”.

In the late 1980’s Bruce became passionate about how health could be dramatically improved with Flax Oil Supplementation. Bruce along with his entrepreneurial parents saw the potential to improve the lives of many people and in 1989 they began selling Flax Oil under the Barlean’s name. From 1989 – 2000 the business grew an average of 40% year over year. While most companies saw a decline in business in the 2001 recession, Barlean’s continued to grow and soon became America’s #1 selling flaxseed oil and continues to be to the present. The brand has since expanded to include additional oils, green food concentrates and other premium supplements. Bruce continues to drive innovation and over the years his products and company have won countless awards including: Eight consecutive Vity Awards for #1 EFA, Six consecutive Vity Awards for #1 Greens Food Supplement, Natural Choice Award for Best Specialty Supplement, Best Product of the Year, Best New Product, Gold Medal Taster’s Choice Award, Gold Medal American Masters of Taste Award, #1 Health Food Store Brand for Consumer Satisfaction by Consumer Lab, and Manufacturer of the Year.

In 2013 as the company was on the eve of celebrating the 25th year in business Bruce and his parents decided to take their desire to help people to a new level that they call Pathway to a Better Life – which is now seen in the Barlean’s logo. Bruce and his parents had always been generous in their giving and support of charities, but as part of the Pathway to a Better Life they decided to increased partnership with charitable organizations such as: Vitamin Angels, Compassion International, KidsTown International, Autism Hope Alliance, Engedi Refuge, Project 92, and others. And because so many people are unable to meet basic nutritional needs, Bruce created a comprehensive Omega-3 and multivitamin formula that he distributes free-of-charge to local food banks. In addition, Bruce decided the company would supply food banks with organic coconut oil to provide people with a health alternative to standard cooking oils.

Always generous with his time Bruce has served as a youth leader for his local church for several years and continues to mentor youth. He has been on several not for profit boards including; Whatcom County Pregnancy Center (2003-2006), Natural Products Association (dates?), and the Institute for Natural Medicine Leadership Council (presently).

The Barlean family have been avid supporters of Bastyr University since the 1990’s and in 2013 were given Bastyr’s most prestigious honor, the Mission Award, which recognizes their leadership over time in improving the health and well-being of the human community.

Bruce currently resides in Ferndale, WA with his wife Lisa and their two dogs: Heinz & Shadow. When he’s not helping others he can be found fishing (catch & release).

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Michelle Simon, PHD, ND

President & CEO

As president and CEO of INM, Dr. Simon brings her passion for working with organizations dedicated to improving the quality and delivery of healthcare. This desire stems from her years of practice as a licensed naturopathic physician. In addition to holding a Naturopathic Doctorate from Bastyr University she also holds a PhD in Biomedical Engineering from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

She has served on boards for the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP), the Naturopathic Physicians Research Institute (NPRI), and several advisory boards. Dr. Simon served nine years on the Washington State Health Technology Clinical Committee, as Ambassador to the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine (AIHM) and was recognized as 2018 AANP Physician of the Year. Dr. Simon shares with her husband a passion for adventure travel, preferably by boat or motorcycle. She also enjoys teaching a women’s off-road motorcycling class.