What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

For many people the darkness of the days extends to their emotions, and they feel gloomy, down and generally miserable.

They may be experiencing depressed mood, worries, anxiety, sleep problems, weight gain, anxiety,  joint pain, irritability, irritable bowel disease (IBS), stress, fatigue or headaches.  

This is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), winter depression, or “Holiday Depression”.

What are the most important causes contributing to Seasonal Affective disorder (SAD)?

  1. Lack of Sunlight
  2. Typical Holiday Treats
  3. Lack of Nutrients
  4. Increased Stress From the Holiday Season
  5. Too Little Physical Exercise
  6. Regrets and Worries - Memories of Trauma and Bad Times

What Can we Do about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

  1. Light Therapy (e.g. SAD Lamps)
  2. Reduce Sugary and Junk Food (as much as possible)
  3. Take targeted supplements for your body and brain type 
  4. Learn Stress Coping Strategies and Relax – Your Holidays do not need to be perfect
  5. Move More While Doing your Daily Chores and Tasks
  6. Be kind to yourself – Exterminate the ANT’s from your Brain… 

Let's Examine Each of these Causes - and Natural Ways to Help.

Cause # 1: Lack of Sunlight

If you live in the northern hemisphere, sunlight is scarcest in the winter season. This is the season that many people experience seasonal affective disorder, appropriately abbreviated SAD.

They start feeling sad, depressed, and just outright tired

If fatigue were the only issue triggered by season changes, things would be easier to solve (with a little coffee maybe!). It is a bit more complicated, though.

Our body produces melatonin in response to darkness. You may have heard of melatonin as the “sleep hormone”.  Light, especially bright daylight, inhibits melatonin production in your brain.

Your melatonin secretion is synchronized with the production of serotonin, which also is part of many physiological processes such as temperature, blood-pressure regulation as well as neuropsychological functions such as appetite, memory and mood.

When melatonin is secreted, serotonin production is inhibited and vice versa. And with increasing age, melatonin secretion generally diminishes.

Lack of serotonin can cause chronic fatigue and mood issues like depression as well as weight gain. It’s like you would want to hibernate in a cave…

Intervention # 1: Light Therapy (e.g. SAD Lamp)

Light Therapy is a proven and effective way to help SAD.

Sunlight increases serotonin levels and helps the body to produce vitamin D. Besides having anti-osteoporotic, immunomodulatory, anti-cancer, anti-psoriatic, anti-oxidant properties, vitamin D is also a mood-modulator.

Why is that?

Exposure to UV rays increases vitamin D synthesis in the skin. That is why people who go to tanning salons have noticed mood improvements, which keeps them coming back….

On the other hand, it is well-known that over-exposure to UVA or UVB, whether from burning in the sun or over-using tanning beds, increases wrinkles and promotes skin cancer…

Light operates on the body in two ways: through skin impact or by entering your eyes. UV light has effects primarily on the skin (and the eyes, where it can contribute to cataracts), while your brain reacts to any bright light, UV or not.  The energizing effect of light therapy stems probably from the increased production of serotonin.

The simplest way to get enough bright light is to spend an hour a day or more outdoors, where the light levels range from 1,000 to 50,000 lux or more, compared to room lighting, which is about 50-200 lux.

If your schedule or the weather does not permit this, an alternative is to purchase a light therapy lamp. For optimum effects, the light source either has to be very bright - 5,000 lux or more - or it has to be in a particular spectrum - around 460 nanometers, which is in the blue range. According to new research, blue range light will provide benefits even if at a dimmer level. Most companies producing light bulbs make full spectrum lights that can to some extent replace sunlight.

Yet, there are side effects of bright artificial light. It interferes with sleep (especially when you are exposed to it before sleep time). It can even trigger a manic episode in some people suffering from bipolar disorder (also known as manic depression.

And those with a specific sensory issue called IRLEN syndrome may have issues with certain frequencies of light.

Cause # 2: Typical Holiday Treats

Holiday Treats are typically high in carbs and simple sugars. Think cake, cookies, chocolates and candy canes...

Many people notice that after a high-sugar meal (or a meal high in simple carbs like bread, pasta or white rice), they get tired and sluggish.

Why is that?

After a high-sugar meal our blood sugar rises rapidly, leading to a rapid insulin release to bring it down. Often the insulin secretion is more than needed, and that can lead to an episode of low sugar (Hypoglycemia), where you feel tired, weak, and maybe even jittery and sweaty when your body reacts to it with a release of the sugar-rising adrenalin or glucagon or both.  You feel that as a leaden fatigue, especially often experienced as “afternoon slump” after a quick sugar-or starch-laden lunch.

Intervention # 2: Reduce Sugary and Junk Food (as much as possible)

Now that sounds easier said than done. Really, should I not eat any candy and cookies and cake anymore? Well, in an ideal world, yes.

But what is realistic and achievable?

So, from a nutrition point of view we need to eat foods for high nutritional value - foods that give the best 'miles per gallon'. These foods are - unprocessed, organic, nutrient-rich whole foods such as apples, pears and berries and all vegetables, and also whole grains (oats, brown rice, whole grain bread), beans and lentils. If just half of your diet consists of these whole foods, you are on the right track for natural energy. Avoid processed foods and refined carbohydrates such as white bread, biscuits, cakes and white rice as much as possible.

A good summary of what's good to eat for vibrant health, more energy and better mood can be found in this book (free download provided)

To improve mood we need to look at foods that increase levels of serotonin, the brain's 'happy' neurotransmitter. A protein called tryptophan is converted in the body to serotonin, so we need to increase our intake of foods rich in tryptophan.

This can be found in foods such as fish, turkey, chicken, cottage cheese, avocados and bananas. Eating foods rich in omega-3-essential fatty acids (found in small oily cold-water fish such as herring, sardines, mackerel and anchovies, and also in seeds) can help depression through improving the cell membrane and mitochondrial functions in  brain and body.

If the thought of eating lots of vegetables, fruits and whole foods seems difficult in the winter, think of making lots of warming soups, casseroles, hot berry desserts. Also, use what's in season - all those root vegetables, carrots, cabbage, celeriac root, turnips, parsnips  leeks and onions. Try combining a selection with some vegetable stock or bone broth (HERE is My favorite and easy recipe) and brown lentils to make a wholesome soup or casserole (add fresh/dried herbs for extra flavouring); and follow it with a delicious apple and berry crumble. Comfort food can be nutritious and can help you get out of the winter blues!

My Favorite Holiday Recipes

Click on one of the images below to be taken to the recipe (with download)

Cause # 3: Lack of Nutrients

You may think: We live in a world of abundance, so how can we lack nutrients? 

The sad truth: Our food, especially regular and processed food, has only a small percentage of the nutrients it used to have 50 or 100 years ago.

Why is that?

Intensive agriculture and the use of chemical fertilizers (which only contain a few minerals, not all of the nutrients a healthy plant - and human - needs, as well as the use of herbicides and pesticides have not only caused a massive decrease in nutrients in the soil.

Those chemicals also killed most of the beneficial micro-organisms that make good soil a rich, living environment where plants can grow and absorb all the nutrients they can so we can eat them.

In addition to this assault, our changed gut microbiome (gut bacteria) as well as certain common medications (like proton pump inhibitors, the anti-baby-pill and many more) - make it harder or near impossible for us to absorb the few nutrients left in the foods we eat.

The result: A deficiency in nutrients.

Especially common are deficiencies in trace nutrients like trace minerals, phytochemicals, antioxidants and essential fatty acids.

And this leads to disease. Not the sudden diseases that modern medicine is great at curing, but slow, chronic diseases that develop in the "underground" for years or decades and then cause symptoms that are very hard to correct.

Read about my view of how disease comes about in my short video: "The barrel model of disease". It's funny, too!

Intervention # 3: Take Targeted Supplements For Your Body And Brain Type

Now that sounds easier said than done. Which ones are worth taking and which ones aren't?

I always say that nutritional supplements have to be selected as part of a nutrition orchestra, which evaluates nutritional needs and actual food intake.

I do that as part of my famous Turn-Around-Assessment. Click on the button below to learn what exactly it is and what it can do for you!

Click HERE To Check Out Our Turn-Around-Assessment!

What do I Mean by Nutrition Orchestra?

Well, you eat certain foods. You may be  taking medications. You may be also taking certain nutritional supplements. You have stress in your life. You live in a certain environment.

These all come together to nourish your body and make you the person you are and influence your physique, body, appetite, mood, thoughts and feelings.

I compare this with an orchestra. All players in a beautiful symphony have to be present and playing well together to make it sound beautiful.

It's the same with food and supplements.

If you are only taking one substance by supplement, you may only be having the drummer in your symphony. Now that doesn't sound good, right?

What can you do to help yourself?

I recommend getting a good and thorough assessment by an experienced health and nutrition practitioner. From there she/he can devise a clear step-by step strategy plan on how best to improve your health and well-being, considering your preferences and all that's going on with you. Now, does that come cheap? Certainly not. 

But it may prove priceless to improve your health and well-being! If your motor in your car breaks, you don't think twice paying thousands to have it fixed. You need your car.

But don't you need your body and health even more?

Cause # 4: Increased Stress From the Holiday Season

You may think: But I love the holidays - how can that be stressful?

The truth is that during the holidays stress levels actually peak for most people.

Stress is not just negative stress (e.g. a pandemic, loss of a job, a pet or a loved one...), but even  a positive change can be stressful (e.g. a move, marriage, birth or a child...)

Why is that?

Holidays means a change, an interruption of our usual routine. We may visit friends and family, entertain, have friends and family over for a visit and on top of it all the children are out of school.

Tempers clash, small talk turns into arguments and more.

On top of it all we eat more unhealthy foods that affect our mood in a negative way. We may feel more tired and sluggish - or the opposite, wound up, nervous, antsy and we cannot sleep for worries about getting it "just right"

If you are a perfectionist (so many of us are) this "having to get it all right" adds additional stress.

And then the flu season starts. We may fight off a cold or even the flu and that causes stress for our immune system and for our mind, because when we don't feel well, we have to put twice as much effort in doing all the things you feel you "should" over the holidays.

Of course a pandemic, like the current COVID-19 pandemic, makes things worse for all.

And if you are one of the many people who feel lonely during the holiday times,  who remember lost loved ones, who miss having family and friends, who are living by themselves and are socially isolated, this loneliness is a different type of stress that weighs you down.

Many people who tend to get depressed, fall victim to the seasonal affective disorder around the winter holidays.

Intervention # 4: Learn Stress Coping Strategies And Relax - Here Is How

Your Holidays Do Not Need To Be Perfect. Just relax. Chill out. Take it easy...

Now that sounds easier said than done. Don't we try to relax all the time? And it makes it worse?

The harder you try to relax, the more tense you feel. And when it comes time to sleep, the tasks of the next day are in your mind and keeping you awake.

The best thoughts come right when you want to fall asleep, right?

What can we do? I recommend a "Brain Dump" - Download my worksheet below for free to see how to do it for maximum results!

Download Brain Dump Worksheet


Lots has been written about this topic. Sure, we should be mindful and pay attention to the moment as much as possible. Right?

But did you catch what's wrong with this statement?

Here is the answer: It's the "should".  This is a negative thought, a statement that makes you feel bad.

If you say to yourself " I should ..." , this thought alone makes you feel guilty and your mind pushes back.

In our Programs, we teach proven strategies to help your brain and mind to stop these Automatic Negative Thoughts (or ANT's, as my mentor Dr. Daniel Amen calls them) and transform them in more helpful thoughts that support your goals instead of sabotaging them.

So be gentle to yourself. Don't be mean to yourself and nice to everyone else.  Be your own best friend. 

Deep Breathing

Breathe deep and relax.

Practice the following breathing exercise to relax your body and mind.

For 3 minutes each hour take a short mental vacation.

Take 3 deep. slow  breaths - if you can, through your nose - and blow it out. Inhale for 3 or 4 seconds, then stop for a second, then exhale twice as long. Hold for a second. Repeat.

Repeat 3 times in 3 minutes.  You will feel calmer and more relaxed instantly.

Don't breathe too hard and fast, or you will get dizzy. Slow and deep is best. Breathe with your belly breath.

You can engage in this exercise while you are standing in the checkout line at the supermarket or purchasing holiday gifts. You can complete the exercise at home or at work.

Take three deep breaths and relax. As you inhale, concentrate on calm and peaceful thoughts. (I imagine golden globes of positive energy coming towards me)

As you exhale, concentrate on pushing any tension out of your lungs. (I imagine black blobs of bad energy leaving me and dissipating in the universe)

Focus on positive images of the Holidays. Focus on laughter, love, excitement and hope.

Try Self-Havening® or Brendon Burchard's Release Meditation

Before I became a havening Techniques® Practitioner, I personally did Brendon's meditation every time I felt stressed. It is really calming.

Now I do a slight variation combined with using Self-Havening.  I call it "Meditation on Steroids". Watch the video and do the meditation with Brendon or do Self-Havening together with me.

Get Help...

If you feel you are so stressed and overwhelmed that you don't know anymore what to do, reach out for help. call a trusted friend or family member, a counselor, a doctor or reach out to us.

Schedule FREE Phone Consult !

Is it really bad? Are you feeling like hurting yourself?  Please go for help right now. Call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest Emergency Room.

Don't give up! There is a light at the end of the tunnel for you, too! Go to my about page and watch the video of my story, and you will get the courage to go for help. 

Cause # 5: Too Little Physical Exercise 

You may think: But I am constantly  on the go. I get a lot of exercise. Really?

The truth is that during the holidays, most people not only splurge on food, but also on sitting around. We are sitting on the couch, glued to the TV screen, watching our favorite holiday movies.

What's your favorite holiday movie? Let me know in the comments to this blog!  (Mine is the original black-and-white "Scrooge", by the way). 

We miss time at the gym or at our Yoga or TaiChi group because of the holidays and instead sit down with friends for a big holiday feast.

Even if we are going and on our feet "all day", at best, that's just aerobic exercise or movement. This is good, but not enough.

Our  body, brain and muscles need strength training, too, to stay strong, healthy and not hurt.

Exercise, especially the high-intensity-interval training recommended for brain cell re-growth (and yes, it is possible!), not only leads to a release of feel-good hormones like endorphins, but also makes us sweat and so get rid of many toxins in our body.

So it is no wonder that we don't feel as well during the holidays.

Intervention # 5: Move More  - Here's How

Now that sounds easier said than done. Don't we move all the time? 

As we said above, we need strength as well as endurance training for optimal health. Now, that doesn't mean you have to go to the Gym every day...

What can we do?

 I recommend a "Nitric Oxide Dump" - Check out the video where Dr. Zach Bush demonstrates how to do it properly.  I do this exercise 3 times a day for healthy blood flow in brain, heart and body.

And if you are sitting a lot, how about doing a few squats when carrying the turkey? (well, don't drop it, though :))

Or a few mindful arm movements up and down while carrying a can of food in each hand as weight?

Get Help...

If you feel you need help coping with the holidays, please reach out for help. Call a trusted friend or family member, a counselor, a doctor or reach out to us.

Schedule FREE Phone Consult !

Is it really bad? Are you feeling like hurting yourself?  Please go for help right now. Call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest Emergency Room.

Don't give up! There is a light at the end of the tunnel for you, too! Go to my about page and watch the video of my story, and you will get the courage to go for help. 

Cause # 6: Regrets and Worries - Memories of Trauma and Bad Times

Many psychologists feel that towards the end of one year many people look back over the year and see themselves as failures.

Another year is behind you and your personal goals may not have been achieved. 

You may not have lost the weight you wanted, you may not have gone to the gym as often as you promised yourself, and you didn't manage to start saving for retirement....

Then there are financial worries, expenses associated with buying Holiday gifts and entertaining others, or with travel expenses.

Relationships can clash when people are together more than usual. 

Do you feel like a failure, beating yourself up over not having done what you told yourself you wanted to do?

These thoughts then can lead to a worse mood. So it is no wonder that we don't feel as well during the holidays.

I myself have done that many times in the past before I finally learned to deal with it the right way - by loving yourself and being your own best friend. And there are ways to learn to do just that.

Intervention # 6: Be Kind To Yourself – Exterminate The ANT’s From Your Brain… 

Become Your Internal Ant-Eater...

Now that sounds weird. What exactly does this mean?

It means talking back to your Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANT's) in a way so your brain and mind can believe it.

This means writing it out on paper. You may have heard it as cognitive behavioural therapy. Many psychologists are trained in this method and it does work.

If you want to try to do it yourself, I have a worksheet which I use with my clients. Download it below!

Download the Worksheet: Exterminate your ANT's...

Be kind to yourself. Talk good about others, especially when they are not present...

Focus on positive images of the Holidays.

Focus on laughter, love, excitement and hope.

If you follow all 6 tips, you will reduce or avoid your Holiday Depression and will no longer fall prey to seasonal affective disorder.

Enjoy your holidays!

Do You Need help?

If you feel you need help coping with the holidays, please reach out for help. Call a trusted friend or family member, a counselor, a doctor, a clergy member or reach out to us.

Schedule FREE Phone Consult !

Is it really bad? Are you feeling like hurting yourself?  Please go for help right now. Call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest Emergency Room.

Don't give up! There is a light at the end of the tunnel for you, too! Go to my about page and watch the video of my story, and you will get the courage to go for help. 

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About the author

Dr. Christine Sauer

Dr. Christine Sauer is a German-trained physician and naturopath, a Certified Brain Health Professional and Brain Trainer (Dr. Daniel Amen MD) as well as a gastrointestinal disease specialist, working as a Holistic Health & Life Coach and Educator.
Her own struggles with chronic pain, weight loss, and mental health
issues have led her to dedicate her life to improving the overall health, gut health and the brain/mental health of others and enabling them to drop unwanted pounds, improve their parenting skills, overcome ADHD (develop laser-focus) and even grow their business - all with natural means, using strategies based in neuroscience combined with her own quirkiness, sense of humor, common-sense, love and care.
She wrote #1 bestselling books, speaks on stages (incl. a TEDx Talk) and lectures on these topics. She also coaches individuals, groups, and families. and teaches teenager on ourschool. As “The Doctor Who Knows How You Feel” she is known to make a lasting impression and positive difference in the lives of her clients, friends and followers. Main website: https://DocChristine.com

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