Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a clinically diagnosed form of depression that begins in the fall, continues into the winter and then typically resolves in the spring and summer. It is a condition that I didn’t pay enough attention to as a general neurologist, but as an Ayurvedic practitioner I became much more attuned to the impact of the seasons on mood. I found that the majority of us notice some shift in mood with each season, and some of us experience more severe changes that qualify as SAD.
Modern treatments for SAD include phototherapy and antidepressants. Although SAD is a modern medical diagnosis, this shift in mood due to the changes in season is a well-documented psychological phenomenon in Ayurveda, spanning back thousands of years. So, in addition to the modern therapies for SAD, we also have access to ancient Ayurvedic treatments that help to treat SAD today and prevent it in the future.
Doshas & the Seasons
Ayurveda outlines in great detail how each of the seasons impacts the body and mind. By understanding your dosha and how the season affects it, you can anticipate the seasonal changes to lessen and prevent SAD.
In fall, Vata season begins. Although Vata is typically associated with anxiety and insomnia, if a Vata individual’s digestion is allowed to get sluggish enough by eating a diet and following a routine that is incompatible with the Vata dosha, then toxins (ama) will begin to accumulate in the gut. This digestive ama quickly begins to influence the brain, resulting in a Kapha imbalance in the mind. Unprocessed ama in the mind becomes the seeds for depression.
As the season progresses into winter, the Kapha imbalance and depression worsen because winter marks the peak of Kapha season.
Although spring is still part of Kapha season, it is the time of year when Kapha begins to “melt” from the body, which is why it is the ideal time to do a cleanse. It’s at the beginning of spring that SAD begins to lessen as the days get longer and the weather gets warmer. Kapha begins to melt as the Pitta dosha begins to build back up both in the outside environment and in your body.
Finally, in summer, which is the peak of Pitta season, the depression associated with SAD usually dissipates.
Using Ayurveda to Combat SAD
SAD is predominately associated with a buildup of excess ama as the Kapha dosha increases in the body and mind. This buildup of excess ama can present differently in the different doshas, resulting in a variety of presentations of SAD.
For Vata individuals, it can be a combination of anxiety and depression making you feel both ungrounded, afraid and heavy at the same time. For pitta individuals, it can be a combination of feeling irritable and depressed—this looks like an agitated type of depression. In the case of Kapha, this can present as a more severe form of depression characterized by lethargy and lack of motivation.
Both Pitta and Kapha individuals are the most susceptible to experiencing some degree of SAD. Pitta individuals are more susceptible because the sun so intimately impacts their mind, as they are predominantly made of the element of fire. Pittas are energized by the sun’s fire more so than any other dosha and when the sun gets weak, they also become weaker. Kapha is also susceptible to SAD because they already have a lot of Kapha built in their mind naturally; it’s easy to tip them out of balance and build up mental ama during Kapha season.
The beauty of Ayurveda is that it helps us predict when we are risk for an experience through the knowledge of how our doshas and seasons interact. Rather than feeling helpless about being able to control our mental and physical health, there’s a yearlong map that clearly charts the course ahead.
Address the Root Cause of SAD
Now that we’ve talked a little bit about the seasonal cycles that impact SAD and which doshas are most at risk, you can follow these simple recommendations at the beginning of fall to directly address the root cause of SAD.
- Start each morning by drinking an 8 oz glass of warm water with the juice from half a lemon and 1 tsp of honey. Lemon and honey reduce Kapha and stimulate agni (fire). Agni—found in every cell, tissue and system—monitors what is allowed into our cells and what is carried out as waste. When it is impaired or out of balance, it causes ama to be formed, which can lead to illness, like SAD. This beverage helps to remove excess ama in the gut, allowing mood to become lighter and clearer as Pitta gets rekindled and excess Kapha is moved out of the brain.
- Wake up before 6:00 am. After 6:00 am, Kapha increases in the body and mind. When you wake up during the later morning Kapha hours (6:00–10:00 am), you will have more Kapha in your system. Waking up before these Kapha hours, during the Vata hours of 2:00–6:00 am, helps you feel physically and mentally lighter, which combats depression.
- Reduce heavy Kapha-inducing foods such as dairy, sugar, oil and meat by 50%. Since like increases like, eating heavy Kapha foods during Kapha season—when your digestion is already weak—only increases Kapha. This higher Kapha predisposes you to SAD this time of year.
- Cook with heating spices such as ginger, black pepper and garlic. Opposites are used as medicine in Ayurveda. Since the Kapha dosha is naturally cold, adding heating spices such as ginger, black pepper, cinnamon, cloves and garlic to your foods during Kapha season is the antidote for a Kapha imbalance. Heat melts Kapha and it helps to boost Pitta.
- Light a candle each evening around 6:00 pm at the beginning of the evening Kapha hours (6:00–10:00 pm) and meditate for a few moments while looking at the light. Diwali is a celebration that occurs each year in India during the transition between fall and winter. This is a time of year that is recognized to have greater darkness—both within us and in the environment as the days get shorter. The symbol of the Diwali celebration is a lit oil lamp, which represents the light of wisdom. Families light lamps in their homes and temples during Diwali to acknowledge the transition of this time of the year and the importance of our inner light as the ultimate antidote for all darkness. By lighting a candle or oil lamp at 6:00 pm and meditating on igniting your inner light, you invite inner wisdom to burn through the darkness of depression. You can light one candle for yourself, one candle for someone in need and one candle for someone you are having difficulty with. This is a very powerful practice that my family and I do year-round, with special focus during the fall and winter.
Seeds of Wisdom
One of the great blessings of Ayurveda is the knowledge of the doshas and how they manifest in ourselves and in the seasons; this makes life more predictable. Once we understand our seasonal susceptibilities, conditions like SAD do not have to overtake us. We can organize our seasonal routine to combat the underlying causes of SAD before they germinate. It’s like having a GPS system for our body and mind that informs us of the turns before we have to take them.
Avoiding a future problem before it arises helps us be more self-empowered and makes each step we take towards our health more efficient. Instead of feeling like we’re always behind the eight-ball, wondering why we feel tired, depressed, anxious or frustrated, we can predict what potential pitfall each season may hold for us and avert the danger before we ever face it.
This is a proactive way to live life, and it gives us the energy and stamina to plant the seeds for a more prosperous, healthy and happier tomorrow. What we once saw as a future danger becomes transformed into a future opportunity to honor our body and mind, because the power to recognize and address it beforehand lies in our very own hands.