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The 5 best products to help with Seasonal Affective Disorder

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woman staring out window wrapped in blanket forlorn -- best products for Seasonal Affective Disorder
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression often prompted by the shorter days of winter.
  • Light therapy lamps, vitamin D, and exercise can be helpful seasonal affective disorder treatments.
  • In serious cases, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), talk therapy, and antidepressants can help.

For many, shorter winter days and gloomy weather bring about low energy and a desire to hibernate inside. But for some 6 to 14% of Americans, less sunlight and time outside leads to a form of clinical depression known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

"The human body has a significant connection with its surroundings, including the change of season, the amount of light from the sun, and the atmospheric pressure," Spencer Kroll, MD, Ph.D., an internal medicine specialist at Kroll Medical Group in New Jersey, told Insider.  

Two neurotransmitters, serotonin and melatonin, help maintain the body's daily sleep-wake cycles (part of our circadian rhythms) but they're also significantly affected by sunlight. In people with SAD, shorter winter days can change serotonin and melatonin levels. That, in turn, disrupts your sleep and can lead to both depression and insomnia. 

Luckily, there are a number of products and strategies widely used for at-home seasonal affective disorder treatment, like a light therapy lamp, often called a "happy lamp." Other treatments, however, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and medications, require a professional.

Additional information regarding Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms, and other resources that can help if you feel your mood shift significantly with the changing of the seasons, can be found at the end of this guide.

Here are the best products to try to combat the effects of seasonal depression. 

A light therapy lamp
Carex Day Light Classic Plus Light

Carex Day-Light Classic Plus, available at Amazon and Walmart, $134

Licensed psychologist Robin T. Hornstein, Ph.D., co-founder and clinical director of LifeStance Health, thinks everyone who lives in an area with true seasonal change (i.e., fewer daylight hours) should have a light therapy lamp to help curb seasonal affective disorder.  

Many studies show that a happy lamp, as they're called, does help with the symptoms of depression and other mood disorders, but researchers are still trying to determine exactly why. Most evidence suggests light therapy works by influencing your circadian rhythms, or your internal sleep-wake clock. Light travels from the eyes via the optic nerves to the hypothalamus area of the brain, which regulates circadian rhythms. Several studies suggest light therapy may also work by increasing serotonin production.

The Carex Day-Light Classic Plus emits 10,000 lux of white light, which is the equivalent of early morning sunlight. This is the level shown by studies to be most effective for light therapy. The Carex is also both height- and angle-adjustable. We like this one in particular because it has both light therapy and task modes so you can also use it as a functioning desk lamp. 

To use a Seasonal Affective Disorder light therapy lamp, start with 15-minutes of light exposure per day, usually in the morning right after waking, advises Shana Feibel, DO, a psychiatrist at the Lindner Center for HOPE in Mason, OH. Increase that up to 30 minutes per day. 

To be effective, the light from a happy lamp needs to reach your eyes, so plan on sitting or working near the lightbox with your eyes open. Don't look directly at the lightbox, however, because the bright light could damage your eyes.

A sunrise alarm clock
philips smartsleep light on bedside table

Phillips SmartSleep Sleep and Wake-Up Light, available at Best Buy, $180

Dr. Hornstein says alarm clocks that mimic the sunrise can also be surprisingly helpful for Seasonal Affective Disorder treatments.  Like a light therapy lamp, sunrise alarm clocks are designed to simulate natural sunlight and enforce typical sleep-wake patterns (though they're less intense at just 100-300 lux of light warmth). 

However, a sunrise alarm clock is meant to help you wake up each morning, easier. It provides more gentle wakefulness in the morning, gradually and steadily increasing light over 30-60 minutes, which studies show can improve sleep quality and cognitive function.

Phillips SmartSleep Sleep and Wake-Up Light simulates a natural sunrise to help you wake up by gradually changing from a soft red to bright yellow light. It's our top pick among sunrise alarm clocks we've tested. You can also program it to play natural noises softly (or FM radio) to help bring you around in the morning. And it has a light-guided wind-down function that helps you transition to sleep, so it's beneficial for overall sleep hygiene.

Read more: After using this sunrise alarm clock, I was less cranky and groggy in the morning.

A daily Vitamin D supplement
Vitacost vitamin D

Vitacost Vitamin D3 5,000 IU, available at Amazon, $15

Studies have shown that low vitamin D levels, often due to low sunlight exposure, are linked with depression. Researchers believe that Vitamin D controls serotonin concentrations and that Vitamin D deficiency and low serotonin levels are a common denominator in many neuropsychiatric disorders. And although taking a vitamin D supplement won't resolve depression, it can help boost your mood, additional research shows. 

Many people with SAD have deficient levels of vitamin D, but according to the National Institute of Health, the studies are mixed on how effective vitamin D is for a Seasonal Affective Disorder treatment. Some research has found it's as effective as a light therapy lamp, but others saw no effect. The best strategy is for your general practitioner to test for any vitamin deficiency, and then you can discuss if a D supplement would help. 

There's another reason you should get tested first: While some research does show supplementation as high as 10,000 IU can be beneficial for symptoms of SAD, there's also a risk that this high level of vitamin D supplementation can cause hypercalcemia, which can contribute to a handful of conditions like contribute to osteoporosis, kidney stones, even heart arrhythmias.

Instead, our medical reviewer, Dr. David Merrill, suggested having your vitamin D levels checked by your doctor and if they are indeed low, opt for a 5,000 IU, high-quality formula. Then, have your levels tested again in three months so you and your doctor can adjust that daily dose to what's optimal for your body without risking vitamin D toxicity.

If you do decide to supplement with Vitamin D, Vitacost Vitamin D3 offers 5,000 IU in a single capsule that is gluten-free, GMO-free, and hypoallergenic. Among the D3 supplements tested for purity, accuracy, and safety by Consumer Lab, Vitacost was the top pick for a high-potency supplement that's also free of heavy metals, and it's highly affordable at just .04 cents a capsule.

Home exercise equipment for an endorphin release
woman using exercise ball at home

ProForm Pro 2000 treadmill, available at Best Buy, $1,499

NordicTrack's S22i Studio Cycle, available at Dick's Sporting Goods, $1,499

MaxPro Smart Cable Gym System, available at Amazon, $1,029

Obé Fitness Monthly Subscription, available at Obé, from $19

"Exercise is helpful as it releases neurotransmitters such as serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine," said Dr. Hornstein. 

Numerous studies have found that exercise can be an effective treatment for depression, including SAD. And how often you sweat is more important than how long or hard you go: One study found consistently exercising for just 15 minutes, three times a week was tied to a lower risk of depressive symptoms. Find an exercise that you enjoy and can do regularly, whether that's joining a gym or setting up a workout space in your home.

If you prefer cardio, we recommend the ProForm Pro 2000 treadmill which has reliable hardware and a 7-inch color screen to run interactive workouts on. Or, the NordicTrack's S22i Studio Cycle is a great stationary bike for spin workouts with an extensive library of rides and automatic resistance and incline/decline control.

If strength training from home is more your thing, the MaxPro machine is all-in-one resistance training that can fit in a small space, offers custom coaching, and is super diverse for a full-body workout. (Check out our full guide on the best at-home workout equipment to find what machines work best for you.)

It's worth noting that a recent study of folks in Alaska with SAD found that being social at the gym played a significant role in how exercise helped improve symptoms. 

To find that social component from an at-home workout, we love the online platform Obé. It offers all kinds of butt-kicking live workouts (pilates, yoga, cardio kickboxing, etc.), and you can log on alongside your own friends and family wherever they are in the world, or just score that community feel from the other participants in the class.

A daily meditation app
Serene man meditating with his eyes closed while practicing yoga on the floor of his living room at home.

Headspace, $13/month

Insight Timer, free

"Other therapies to improve relaxation, such as meditation and guided imagery, can also be useful in treating SAD," said Dr. Kroll.  A 2014 review of 47 studies by the NIH found that mindfulness meditation programs show moderate evidence of improving anxiety and depression.  

Meditation is helpful because it teaches you to better let go of thoughts and minimize rumination. If the idea of meditating regularly intimidates you, remember: Experts agree it's less important to meditate for a long period of time and more important to practice it regularly.

Read more: How to meditate with a complete beginner's guide to meditation and mindfulness

Headspace is the best meditation app we've tried, both for easing beginners into the practice and for prompting you to practice daily. The app makes everyone start with a 10-day basic meditation course, complete with cute and incredibly helpful animations and narration by Headspace founder and former Tibetan Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe. It offers a free trial and then requires a monthly subscription.

If you're looking for a free meditation app, we really like Insight Timer (and so does Dr. Merrill). We've found Headspace is better for establishing a meditation routine and a daily habit, but Insight Timer offers over 100,000 free guided meditations if you want to just try a few out and see if the practice is for you.

Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms
woman sleeping in bed

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression, so it's marked by losing interest in activities you once enjoyed, changes in sleep, weight, appetite, or energy, experiencing feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, or frequent thoughts of death or suicide. However, uniquely with SAD, these symptoms are tied to the changing of the seasons.

In most cases, SAD symptoms begin in the fall and last through the winter. This is known as winter-pattern SAD, which typically looks like sleeping too much, exhaustion, less interest in fun activities, and decreased libido, said Dr. Hornstein. 

Some people experience summer-pattern SAD though. "Those with onset in the spring or summer may appear almost manic, requiring less sleep, and may look keyed up to others.  Again, these are all related to decreased or increased light from the sun," Dr. Hornstein added.

In either case, professionals look for a pattern of depressive symptoms during specific seasons when making a diagnosis of seasonal affective disorder.

When to seek professional treatment for SAD
woman staring out window wrapped in blanket forlorn -- best products for Seasonal Affective Disorder

If you've tried at-home seasonal affective disorder treatments like those above and haven't found relief, it may be time to seek professional help.

A licensed therapist or psychiatrist can offer the next level of SAD treatments, namely cognitive-behavioral therapy and antidepressant medications.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of therapy aimed at helping people change the way they think about negative and overwhelming patterns. For people with seasonal depression, CBT can be adapted to focus on replacing negative thoughts about the winter season with more positive thoughts. 

CBT is provided by highly trained therapists, psychotherapists, and some psychiatrists.  A 2015 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that CBT significantly helped improve depressive symptoms. What's more, the study reports that people who paired CBT with light therapy fared better after a year than those who used light therapy alone.

Additionally, if depression symptoms are seriously interfering with your ability to function at home, work, or with your family, or if you are having suicidal thoughts or ideations, it's time to seek professional help. Check out our guide to the best online therapy options, as well as free and cheap mental health resources, or call 1-800-662-HELP (4357) for the free national helpline.

"Some people with SAD will also benefit from antidepressant treatment, especially if symptoms are severe," said Dr. Kroll. SAD, like other types of depression, involves disrupted serotonin activity, so selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have been shown to be helpful in treating the condition

"Please know this is not a shortcoming in you," said Dr. Hornstein. "SAD is a real and common thing that happens. Depression is also associated with higher rates of hopelessness and even suicidal behaviors, so please don't take it lightly. Seek help so you can feel better."

Expert Sources

For this article, we consulted with the following experts:

This piece was also medically reviewed in its entirety by David A. Merrill, MD, PhD, director of the Pacific Brain Health Center at Providence St. John's Health in Santa Monica, CA.

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The 5 best products to help with Seasonal Affective Disorder
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