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8 Natural Treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder

If you experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that hits during the cold, dark winter months, these natural treatments may help lift your spirits—no Rx required!

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Spend time outside

Bundle up and head outside even it's it cold. Just 30 minutes of natural sunlight at a time, ideally in the morning, will raise levels of the feel-good neurotransmitter in your brain called serotonin, studies show. Too little sunlight exposure can cause serotonin levels to dip, setting you up for symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.

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Work near a window

If you don't have a window near your office, walk past one whenever possible or take breaks to head outdoors. When the eyes see sunlight—even if you don't glance up at the sky—the pineal gland, a small endocrine gland located in the brain, senses the increase in light and stops the production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. Too much melatonin can make you feel sluggish, drowsy, and fatigued. Check out the upsides and downsides of sun exposure that you've probably never heard of.

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Have your vitamin D levels checked

Since less skin is exposed to sunlight during the colder months of the year, vitamin D levels tend to drop, which could leave you more susceptible to depression, fatigue, and a host of other ailments. A simple blood test can detect your vitamin D levels, and your doctor can determine whether you could benefit from taking a supplement, and if so, what the proper dosage might be. For some people, maintaining adequate vitamin D levels throughout the year is enough to reverse seasonal affective disorder. Here's how to continue getting your daily dose of D after summer.

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Stick to an exercise routine

Although you may not feel like exercising when it's snowy or icy, staying active is another way to raise mood-boosting chemicals such as serotonin and endorphins that help to lessen the winter blues. Aerobic exercise such as running and biking seem to produce the biggest benefits, but all forms of fitness are beneficial to seasonal affective disorder treatment.

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Take fish oil

According to the renowned integrative physician Andrew Weil, MD, fish oil may be useful to support emotional health. Essential fatty acids from fish, including EPA and DHA, promote proper neurotransmitter function—a must for anyone trying to overcome seasonal affective disorder. Read more about the health benefits of fish oil.

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Use a light box

Light therapy is one of the most effective treatments for seasonal affective disorder because it mimics the effects of natural sunlight. There are several options to choose from when purchasing a light box, but look for one with a brightness rating of at least 10,000 lux that filters UV rays to protect your eyes and skin. If you leave your box on for several hours a day, your brain will be tricked into thinking you're in a spot like Yuma, Arizona—the sunniest place on earth—and respond by cranking up serotonin production.

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Keep your sleep schedule consistent

Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, even on weekends. Keeping a consistent schedule will provide you with more exposure to light, give you energy during the day, and lessen potential feelings of depression. Good sleep hygiene will also reinforce your body's internal clock, reminding the brain when to release or curb the body's sleep and wake signals. These daily habits will help improve your sleep.

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Indulge in some dark chocolate

We know this is tough, but if lack of sunlight has you feeling low, consider indulging in a few pieces of dark chocolate each day. High-quality dark chocolate, containing 70 percent cocoa or higher, has been shown to increase the brain's pleasure chemicals, including endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine. Plus, dark chocolate is high in protective antioxidants. The taste and smell alone may give your mood a little lift.

Originally Published in Reader's Digest