If winter finds you a bit down in the dumps, you are not alone.
Studies show that more than 5 percent of the U.S. population suffers from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a winter condition with symptoms of fatigue, irritability, indifference, sleep disorders, weight gain, suicidal thoughts, and generalized depression. It’s more common in northern latitudes, though southern dwellers are not immune. That’s because SAD is caused by winter’s diminished light, not by low temperatures.
Having practiced medicine in Montana for close to three decades, I’ve seen lots of patients with SAD, and I know that natural medicine can really help. However, people with severe symptoms or a preexisting mental health diagnosis should consult their doctor before using any new medicine, including natural medicine, to treat SAD.
Here are my tried-and-true recommendations for conquering the winter blues. You don’t have to use all of them and can combine the ones you like best. Getting outside is essential. If possible, that should top your list.
Spend time outside in the morning. Melatonin is a sleep-inducing, mood-improving hormone that our bodies make in the evening in response to early morning sunlight entering our eyes. Go outside in the morning as often as you can. If you can exercise outdoors, do. But even sitting outside, facing the sun without sunglasses, for 20 minutes a day will bring benefit.
Melatonin. If you can’t get outside, melatonin is available as a supplement. For SAD, I generally recommend a liquid, sublingual dose of 1 to 2 milligrams (mg) at bedtime.
Vitamin D deficiency is linked to mood disorders and depression. Like melatonin, vitamin D is produced in the human body in response to sunlight on our skin. If you can arrange a long holiday at the equator in mid-winter, you may store enough vitamin D to get you through until spring. But if that’s not possible, consider vitamin D supplementation. For most of my patients, 2,000 international units (IU) daily, taken with a meal, is an effective dosage for SAD.
Ginkgo biloba is a plant medicine that promotes circulation in small blood vessels, such as those in our brains. I’ve found that a daily dose of 80 mg of ginkgo biloba, available in capsules, helps reduce SAD symptoms of listlessness, foggy thinking, and depression. Note: If you have a circulatory disorder or are on cardiac or blood-thinning medication, speak with your doctor before starting ginkgo.
Lemon balm is another of my favorite plant medicines for SAD. A member of the mint family, lemon balm has been consumed in tea form as a nervine herb (soothing to the nervous system) since the Middle Ages. Because lemon balm can also help with indigestion, restless legs, and insomnia, take it in the evening, an hour or more after dinner. You can find lemon balm in loose- or bag-tea form. Use one bag or one-half teaspoon loose tea per 8 ounces water. Steep for 6 minutes and drink the tea an hour away from food. Lemon balm has a pleasant taste, though it can be combined with mint or sweetened with honey if desired.