Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression also known as winter depression or seasonal depression. SAD was first identified by researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health in the 1980s.1
SAD has been defined as a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons, starting and ending about the same time every year. In the United States, the most difficult months for individuals suffering from SAD tend to be January and February. Some individuals experience SAD in the summer, even though it is much less common. Researchers have concluded that SAD stems from a problem in adapting to the physical environment.
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, between four and six percent of the U.S. population suffers from winter-onset SAD, while between 10 and 20 percent suffers from a milder form of the disorder. SAD typically begins in young adulthood, meaning that adolescents and teenagers are at risk.
Some researchers have questioned whether there is actually any data in support of the existence of SAD. A study conducted in 2016 involving data from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) did not find a correlation between depression scores and the hours of sunlight on the day the scores were collected. Nevertheless, the findings do not negate evidence that lack of light negatively affects the mental health or the experiences of millions of individuals around the world.2
What Causes SAD?
- Low Levels of Serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that affects mood. Reduced sunlight in the fall and winter sometimes leads to a drop in the serotonin levels, which may trigger the onset of SAD.
- Elevated Levels of Melatonin. Change in the season may disrupt the balance of melatonin, which plays a role in mood and sleep patterns. Darkness leads to increased production of melatonin in the body, which is why individuals suffering from SAD tend to feel sluggish or sleepy.
- Disturbed Circadian Rhythms. The decrease in the amount of sunlight that comes with the end of summer may disrupt the body’s circadian rhythms, or internal clock which may cause individuals to become more susceptible to SAD.
- Vitamin D Deficiency. A lack of Vitamin D has been linked to SAD. A significant amount of vitamin D comes from the sun, which means that during the darker winter months, people may suffer from a Vitamin D deficiency that results in SAD.
To determine whether an individual is suffering from SAD, a healthcare professional usually administer a psychological as well as a physical evaluation. Lab tests may also be ordered to help determine whether a thyroid problem or a different underlying medical condition may be a contributing factor.
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The symptoms of SAD are similar to those of other forms of depression, including low energy, a sense of hopelessness, feelings of sadness throughout the day, difficulty concentrating, sluggishness, changes in weight or appetite, loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities, lack of self-worth and self-esteem, sleeping problems, and thoughts of suicide.
Winter-onset SAD has its own specific set of additional symptoms including weight gain, craving for high-carb foods, oversleeping, heavy feeling in either the legs or arms, difficulty getting along with others, low energy, and irritability.
Summer-onset SAD symptoms include episodes of violent behavior, anxiety or agitation, poor appetite, loss of weight, insomnia, and feelings of sadness.
Risk Factors for SAD
Individuals with any of the characteristics provided below may be at a higher risk of suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
- Younger Age. Younger people tend to have a higher risk of developing winter-onset SAD. However, the risk of developing SAD for the first time reduces as people age.
- Being Female. About 75 percent of the people diagnosed with SAD are female. However, it also occurs in males, who are at risk of developing more severe symptoms.
- Bipolar Disorder or Clinical Depression Diagnosis. Individuals suffering from depression or bipolar disorder may experience seasonal shifts in their depression symptoms.3
- Distance from the Equator. SAD is more individuals in people living either far north or far south from the equator.
How is SAD Treated?
The symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder are remedies using methods including cognitive therapy, light therapy, nutrient supplementation, dietary changes, ionized-air administration, exercise, color therapy, pharmaceuticals, and aromatherapy.
Essential Oils to Relieve Symptoms of SAD
Essential oils stimulate the nerve endings of the olfactory bulb at the back of the nose. The nerve endings stimulate the limbic system, which is the part of the brain associated with the most primal human instincts: memories and emotions.
Basil Essential Oil
Basil essential oil contains many antioxidants. Antioxidants prevent free radical damage, calm the nervous system, and reduce inflammation. Basil also helps reduce fatigue and uplifts the spirit. Basil essential oil also clears the mind and improves circulation, allowing for improved focus and concentration.
Basil essential oil can be administered in many different ways, but the most effective method is through a diffuser where it is typically mixed with peppermint oil for best results. Inhaling basil oil is a great way to focus and distress, making it a good essential oil to use in conjunction with other SAD treatments.
Lemon Essential Oil
Lemon essential oil has the instantly recognizable scent of fresh lemons. In addition to stimulating the production of white blood cells for defending the body against infection, it has been shown to boost both dopamine and serotonin levels, which are responsible for regulating mood. The oil is also a stimulant that helps improve focus and concentration while uplifting and purifying the mind and body.
The essential oil can be used when inhaled via a diffuser, or on the skin or in a bath when diluted with a carrier oil to promote relaxation and reduce mind fog.
Bergamot Essential Oil
Bergamot essential oil has a sweet, fresh, fruity scent and an uplifting effect. It can help alleviate tension, stress, anxiety, insomnia, agitation, and tension, all of which are symptoms associated with SAD.
Inhaling bergamot essential oil can help reduce symptoms of SAD. It can also be applied topically to the stomach or feet when diluted with a carrier oil.
Grapefruit Essential Oil
Grapefruit oil is an energizing and uplifting essential oil. Its energizing properties make it ideal for individuals that become tired, unmotivated, and sleepy during the winter months.
A study conducted in 1995 showed that grapefruit enhanced neuroendocrine hormone levels and strengthened immune function. The oil is ideally used through a diffuser or in a bath.
Rose Essential Oil
Rose oil may help stimulate libido, reduce pain and inflammation, increase circulation, reduce mental fog, alleviate stress, and improve mood. Rose essential oil also helps balance hormone levels. All of these benefits are important when alleviating SAD symptoms.
Rose oil can be inhaled by using it in a diffuser or applied topically and then massaged on the onto the back of the neck or the temples.
Lavender Essential Oil
Lavender has been shown to decrease mood swings, insomnia, and aches and pains. Lavender essential oil helps relax both the body and mind, allowing for relief from emotional distress. It helps improve sleep by improving the depth, length, and quality of sleep.
The oil is best inhaled on its own or when mixed with other essential oils in a diffuser. Try putting several drops of lavender essential oil on your pillow to help induce better sleep at night.
Frankincense has been around since biblical times and offers a range of benefits when it comes to relieving symptoms of SAD. This essential oil helps awaken the body and mind and reduces feelings of stress and anxiety.
Frankincense essential oil is best used when applied topically to feet or the back of the neck to calm the body and mind.
Jasmine Essential Oil
Vaporized jasmine has a stimulating effect on the autonomic nervous system, thus resulting in increased alertness and greater saturation of blood oxygen. It also promotes relaxation.
The oil has also been shown to increase the function gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), the chemical messenger in the brain that binds with neurons to reduce their activity.
Jasmine essential oil is best used in a diffuser, but can also be applied topically when diluted with a carrier oil or in a bath.
Sandalwood essential oil was traditionally used in Buddhism as a therapy for anxiety and insomnia. Research has shown that when inhaled, sandalwood oil is calming, increases attentiveness, and improves mood.
Clary sage essential oil has been shown to increase levels of both serotonin and dopamine. It also helps boost self-esteem and reduces anxiety. It also balances hormone levels in the body, which may be the underlying cause of elevated cortisol levels or some of the symptoms of SAD.
The best way to use clary sage essential oil is by diluting it with a carrier oil or body lotion and applying it topically. A few drops of clary sage in a bath promotes relaxation and calms both the mind and body, leaving an individual feeling uplifted and relaxed.
Roman Chamomile Essential Oil
Roman chamomile essential oil is a floral-scented oil with excellent calming properties that has been used to induce relaxation for over 2,000 years.
A study published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that Roman chamomile essential oil used in combination with lavender, and neroli had the potential to reduce anxiety in patients in intensive care.
Vetiver Essential Oil
Vetiver essential oil is appreciated for its grounding, tranquilizing, healing, soothing, and protective properties. It helps reduce feelings of anxiety and is considered quite helpful for alleviating some of the symptoms of SAD.
Vetiver essential oil can be used in aromatherapy or topically when diluted with a carrier oil.
Juniper Berry Essential Oil
Juniper berry essential oil has a sweet scent and a hint of balsamic. It is often used to fight infections, cleanse the urinary system, and improve skin health. In traditional medicine, it was used for its antibacterial properties.
A study by Tallinn University of Technology’s Institute of Chemistry found that juniper berry essential oil contains more than 87 active compounds that include antifungals and antibiotics.
Juniper berry essential might be known for its antibacterial properties, but it also offers emotional support as well. Several cultures have used the essential oil as a calming agent to alleviate stress, anxiety, and burnout, making it an excellent remedy for SAD symptoms.
Juniper berry essential oil can be diffused or inhaled directly from the bottle. It can also be used applied topically after first diluting it with a carrier oil or ingested.
A 2006 clinical trial found that using ylang-ylang essential oil in aromatherapy helps alleviate stress in humans. It also promotes hormonal balance, which is critical in preventing irritability and mood swings. Ylang ylang essential oil also helps relax both the body and mind due to its sedative properties that in turn help promote better sleep.
Ylang ylang oil should be used in a diffuser to help promote and increase positive emotions. It can also be applied directly to the skin by massaging it around the neck, feet, behind the ears, as well as on the wrists, for the best results.
Marjoram Essential Oil
Marjoram essential oil strengthens the nervous system, reducing stress and inducing relaxation.
Patchouli Essential Oil
Inhaling patchouli essential oil helps to increase the levels of dopamine and serotonin in the brain. Increasing levels of these pleasure hormones consequently help reduce feelings of anxiety, stress, sadness, and anger. It also contains sedative properties that help relax the body and mind, reduce inflammation, and promote restful sleep.
To enjoy the best benefits of patchouli essential oil, it is advisable to inhale it directly from the bottle or diffuse it throughout the home.
Wild Orange Essential Oil
Wild orange essential oil helps uplift mood by increasing the circulation of blood and detoxifying the body, particularly the gallbladder and liver. It can help reduce feelings of panic.
Wild orange essential oil can be used in a diffuser by itself or in combination with bergamot or grapefruit essential oils.
Peppermint Essential Oil
Peppermint essential oil helps eliminate fatigue and eases anxiety.
Peppermint essential oil is best used in a cold air diffuser for maximum effect. The aromatic mist travels to the lungs and subsequently into the bloodstream. It can also be inhaled directly from the bottle or by sprinkling a few drops in the hands, rubbing them together, and inhaling.
Geranium Essential Oil
Geranium essential oil is great for controlling mood swings as it promotes positive health and emotions. It also contains natural sedative properties, which makes it great for increasing sleep quality and promoting relaxation.
Geranium essential oil can be used in a diffuser, or rubbed on the hands and inhaled deeply. It can also be used topically on the skin when diluted with a carrier oil.
How To Use Essential Oils for SAD Symptoms
Essential oils can be used in several different ways to relieve the symptoms of SAD.
Add several drops of a preferred essential oil to a room diffuser and then diffuse throughout a space. Alternatively, try a vaporizer or portable aromatherapy diffuser.
Essential Oil Rub
Add 5 to 10 drops of a preferred essential oil to two tablespoons of a carrier oil and mix well. The mixture should then be rubbed on the neck, feet, chest, or temples to promote relaxation.
Add 5 to 10 drops of a preferred essential oil to a warm bath to help reduce the symptoms of SAD. This promotes relaxation while alleviating stress and anxiety.
Add 10 to 12 drops of a preferred essential oil to two ounces of a carrier oil and massage deep into the skin to increase circulation and relaxation.
Safety and Precautions
When using essential oils for treatment of any kind, it is always important to be properly educated on the topic and mindful of instructions on all the essential oils used.
Always test a small amount of the oil on the skin before using it on larger areas of the body in case of an allergic reaction.
Using essential oils for treating Seasonal Affective Disorder is an exciting concept. Using something that’s derived naturally to restore mental balance could be just what someone needs at a time when they feel out of balance.