After living in sunny Rome for 12 years, my move to Pennsylvania in 1996 brought an unexpected adversary — the winter blues, formally known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). The first winter after my return to the United States, I noticed an unusual desire for daily naps and an overall sense of melancholy. I attributed these symptoms to the adjustment of moving to a new country. However, when my mood magically lifted the following summer, only to drop again in winter, I knew I was experiencing SAD.
SAD is a condition of mild to major depression with a seasonal pattern. Most people begin to notice feelings of sadness and reduced energy around October or November, and find they become worse in December, January, and February, when the days are shortest.
What Causes SAD?
The primary factors that may influence this disorder are:
Low levels of serotonin. Serotonin is a chemical in your brain that makes you feel happy. Reduced sunlight can cause serotonin levels to drop, affecting the balance of your mood.
Elevated levels of melatonin. This hormone primarily affects sleep patterns, and a change in the season can disrupt the balance of melatonin in your body, causing you to produce too much. The result is depressed feelings and lethargy.
Your internal clock. Your internal clock, known as your circadian rhythm, alerts you to whether you should be awake or asleep. The decreased sunlight in winter disrupts your normal rhythm and can bring about symptoms of SAD.
Though anyone can experience SAD, it’s most common in women and in people living in places with fewer hours of daylight in winter. Six percent of the U.S. population is affected by SAD, and they live primarily in northern climates. For those living in the North, depressions can be longer and more intense than for those in the South. SAD may be hereditary, so if you have a parent or close relative with SAD, you may be more likely to suffer from it yourself.
Signs You Have SAD
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, if you experience a combination of particular symptoms that coincide with specific seasons for at least two years, you likely have SAD. The most common symptoms that people experience with seasonal affective disorder are:
- Experiencing a drop in energy.
- Feeling depressed and hopeless.
- Having difficulty concentrating.
- Starting to feel separated from friends and loved ones.
- Feeling agitated and moody.
- Not enjoying normally pleasurable activities.
- Experiencing changes in appetite and weight.
- Sleeping too much, or not sleeping enough.
Keep in mind, these symptoms may vary slightly from person to person. The symptoms of SAD will usually be mild, but they can increase in severity as time goes on. Some people only feel slightly down, while others can find themselves in a deep depression. Talk to a health care professional if you find yourself having any combination of these SAD symptoms, or other symptoms you’re concerned about.
Aromatherapy and SAD
Now for the good news. Scientific research has shown that people suffering from SAD are more sensitive to aromas and therefore may respond well to essential oils. As a veteran clinical aromatherapist, I can personally attest to the efficacy of using essential oils in this manner, as they’ve been my first line of defense against SAD for over 20 years.
Keep in mind that the therapeutic use of essential oils and the practice of aromatherapy is a complementary health modality, and not meant to cure SAD. Rather, essential oils are a means to enhance your overall emotional outlook and work alongside traditional and alternative treatments intended to combat SAD.
Over the years, I’ve experimented with a number of essential oils to address my winter blues, as well as that of my clients and students. Below is a list of the oils that I’ve found to be most effective in helping restore physical and emotional balance during the dark days of winter.
Citrus essential oils: The citrus oils are always my first choice for addressing the low mood, brain fog, and lethargy that are typical of SAD. The aroma of these oils is clean, refreshing, and mood-boosting. They’re really the most cheerful little group of oils you can own. I especially appreciate that they’re uplifting without being stimulating and can therefore be used in the evening and at bedtime. Not only do they pierce the gloom of winter, but their high limonene content helps stimulate immunity, an important factor during cold and flu season. The most popular citrus essential oils are bergamot, grapefruit, lemon, lime, mandarin, sweet orange, and tangerine. Though they’re all helpful against the symptoms of SAD, the two I’ve found to be particularly effective are lemon and bergamot, expanded upon below.
Lemon (Citrus limon): Lemon has a familiar, fresh aroma that invites happy energy into your life. I think of it as sunshine in a bottle. Lemon has been shown to have antidepressant properties, boosting both dopamine and serotonin levels — brain chemicals that are responsible for regulating mood. Lemon also helps improve focus and concentration. The immune-boosting limonene content is particularly high in lemon — between 56.6 and 76 percent of the essential oil — making this a superb one for winter.
Lemon has phototoxic properties, which means it can react with sunlight and cause burning, discoloration, or skin damage, so I don’t recommend dermal application if you’ll be exposing your skin to sunshine. Simply inhaling lemon via diffusion or a personal inhaler can be very beneficial for improving mood.
Bergamot (Citrus bergamia): Bergamot is one of my favorite essential oils. It not only smells divine, but it lifts a heavy heart and brings in positive energy. Bergamot is restorative and refreshing, and when inhaled, reduces stress, anxiety, and depression.
Please note that bergamot is highly phototoxic, so remember to avoid direct sunlight or tanning beds for 12 to 24 hours if you apply it to your skin. As with lemon, I find inhalation the most effective way to receive the antidepressant benefits of this oil. My favorite way to use bergamot is with a drop of Siberian fir in a personal nasal inhaler.
Silver Fir (Abies alba): Silver fir, also known as fir needle, is steam-distilled from the majestic Abies alba evergreen tree. The aroma is clean, earthy, and fresh, and you’ll feel like you’re standing in the middle of a forest when you inhale it. Silver fir is energizing, and many find it helpful for lifting the depressed spirits that frequently accompany SAD. In addition, silver fir is rich in monoterpene components that can support winter respiratory health issues, such as bronchitis, colds, and flu.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis): Melissa (or lemon balm) is pricey, but I found it worth every penny during my darkest days of SAD. I would sit in front of my diffuser up to three times a day and inhale the cool, lemony essential oil while repeating positive affirmations. The effect on my anxiety and blue mood was immediate and profound. In her book The Blossoming Heart, Robbi Zeck writes, “Melissa softens extreme emotions, eases resentment, gladdens the heart, and engages the soul in its own graceful rhythm.” In addition, lemon balm can be a real friend if your SAD is accompanied by insomnia or anxiety.
Ylang-Ylang (Cananga odorata): Ylang-ylang essential oil has an exotic, sweet aroma and is especially helpful with anxiety, which commonly accompanies depression. The calming aspect of ylang-ylang is most likely due to the high volume of ester components in the oil, which research has shown to be central nervous system sedatives.
I’ve experienced four or five hours of serenity after receiving an aromatherapy massage with ylang-ylang, sweet orange (Citrus x sinensis), and cedarwood (Juniperus virginiana) essential oils. Take note: I’ve had enthusiastic students use a high concentration of ylang-ylang, only to end up with a headache and nausea, which can happen when used in excess.
Spike Lavender (Lavandula latifolia): This is another personal favorite of mine. Like true lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), spike lavender’s aroma is floral, but it has a more camphorous aroma because of a significant amount of camphor in the plant.
In terms of addressing SAD, true lavender essential oil is best suited for calming anxiety and stress and promoting sleep, whereas spike lavender is excellent for cutting through brain fog and increasing mental alertness and focus.
If you feel you have seasonal affective disorder, consult your doctor. Often, SAD symptoms can be comfortably addressed with not only aromatherapy and essential oils, but also good nutrition, daily exercise, good sleep, bright light therapy, or, in severe cases, cognitive behavioral therapy. Even mild depression can impact your ability to function well in daily life, so please don’t downplay your symptoms. With the right treatment, a change in the seasons will no longer change your health and happiness.
Using Essential Oils for SAD
Personal nasal inhaler: Inhalers are a wonderfully convenient and discrete way to breathe in essential oils when a diffuser isn’t practical. Simply apply 15 drops of essential oil to the cotton wick that’s sold with the inhaler. To use, unscrew the cap, place the inhaler to your nose, and inhale deeply. I love to quietly say a positive affirmation while inhaling.
Diffusion: An aromatherapy ultrasonic diffuser disperses essential oils into the air. You can
diffuse a single oil or several together for multiple benefits. The effect can last for several hours, and diffusers can be placed throughout your home.
Aromatherapy massage: I can’t stress enough the importance of getting a massage when struggling with SAD. As I’ve described, essential oils can be powerful agents in helping restore emotional well-being. When you combine the oils with the comfort of human touch, it makes for a magnificent healing fusion. Get these massages as often as you can afford.
Aromatherapy bath: Take the time for a warm bath with gentle healing music, candles, and aromatic oil. To ensure that your skin doesn’t become irritated from the essential oil, blend 10 drops of essential oil into ½ cup of carrier oil, and add it to the water just before you step in.
Emotionally Uplifting Nasal Inhaler
- 7 drops bergamot essential oil (Citrus bergamia)
- 5 drops spike lavender essential oil (Lavandula latifolia)
- 3 drops Siberian fir essential oil (Abies alba)
- 1 nasal inhaler
Add the 15 drops of essential oils to the cotton wick, and place it inside the inhaler. Each time you open the tube and breathe in the aroma, repeat a positive affirmation, such as: “Today I will find a way to experience joy,” or “I feel light and energetic.”
Soothe My Spirit Roller Ball
- 0.35 ounces (10 milliliters) jojoba oil (Simmondsia chinensis)
- 4 drops sweet orange essential oil (Citrus x sinensis)
- 3 drops ylang-ylang essential oil (Cananga odorata)
- 2 drops cedarwood essential oil (Juniperus virginiana)
1. Add the essential oils to your roller-ball bottle, and then fill the rest of the container with jojoba oil. Snap in the roller ball, and close the cap.
2. To use, apply as often as needed to your wrists, neck, or feet. Note that this blend does not contain any phototoxic essential oils.