Skip to content
650-366-4299    Schedule Online    Book Consultation   

Seasonal Affective Disorder from a Traditional Chinese Medicine Perspective

Excerpt from article by Fay-Meling von Moltke Pao, DAc, BHSc, Hon.BA. and A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia

In the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine it is said, “People and nature are inseparable. In nature the cyclical movement of the heavenly bodies produces atmospheric influences that exert control over the rhythms of the seasons and is responsible for change to the myriad living and nonliving things…warmth of the spring gives rise to birth, the fire of the summer fuels rapid growth and development, the coolness of autumn matures all and provides harvest, and the coldness of winter forces inactivity and storing”.

As fall turns into winter, many people are prone to a mild form of depression that seems to lift in the warmer months of spring. Along with a depressed mood, one can experience irritability, headaches, extreme fatigue and lethargy, increased appetite, carbohydrate cravings, an inability to concentrate, and decreased libido. These set of symptoms form a condition commonly referred to as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Seasonal affective disorder affects over ten million people in the United States each year, two-thirds of which are female. While the true cause is not known according to western medicine, it is thought that decreased melatonin levels arising from the limited exposure to sunlight in the winter are involved. Other factors that may contribute to SAD include genetics, hormones, and stress.

Map of Seasonal Affective Disorder

This map shows how between the 30th parallels (yellow) winter depression is almost unknown.  Beyond them, rates increase toward the poles.  For example, 1% in Northern Florida and increasing to 10% in Alaska (Scientific American Mind, Vol16, No.3, 2005).

Conventional Western Treatment

Current methods of treating seasonal affective disorder in conventional western medicine involve light therapy. Light therapy is based on the theory that increasing exposure to bright lights will increase the levels of melatonin. For some cases, antidepressants are also prescribed. Most of these drugs work by increasing the actions and effects of the chemical stimulants noradrenaline and serotonin in the body. While all these treatments can control depression, they do not address the underlying causes associated with it. Furthermore, antidepressants can produce side effects such as Anxiety, palpitations, insomnia, high blood pressure, reduced libido, excessive sweating and rash.

As with other types of depression, antidepressant medicines and talk therapy can be effective.

To manage your symptoms at home:

  • Get enough sleep.
  • Eat a healthy foods.
  • Take medicines the right way. Ask your health care provider how to manage side effects.
  • Learn to watch for early signs that your depression is getting worse. Have a plan if it does get worse.
  • Try to exercise more often. Do activities that make you happy.

Do not use alcohol and illegal drugs. These can make depression worse. They can also affect your judgment about suicide.

When you are struggling with depression, talk about how you are feeling with someone you trust. Try to be around people who are caring and positive. Volunteer or get involved in group activities.

Light therapy for Seasonal Affective disorderLight Therapy Igloo at the Airport, Paris, France


Your health care provider may prescribe light therapy. Light therapy uses a special lamp with a very bright light that mimics light from the sun.

  • Treatment is started in the fall or early winter, before the symptoms of SAD begin.
  • Follow your health care provider’s instructions about how to use light therapy. One way that may be recommended is to sit a couple of feet away from the light box for about 30 minutes each day. This is usually done in the early morning, to mimic sunrise.
  • Keep your eyes open, but do not look straight into the light source.

Symptoms of depression should improve within 3 to 4 weeks if light therapy is going to help.

Side effects of light therapy include:

  • Eye strain and headache – Mania (rare)

People who take medicines that make them more sensitive to light, such as certain psoriasis drugs, antibiotics, or anti- psychotics, should not use light therapy.

A checkup with your eye doctor is recommended before starting treatment.

With no treatment, symptoms usually get better on their own with the change of seasons. Symptoms can improve more quickly with treatment.

Traditional Chinese Medicine

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, everything has a yin and yang aspect: opposing forces that also complement one another and form part of a greater whole. Yang is positive in sign and relates to masculinity, activity, warmth, and brightness. It also refers to qualities such as increasing, lifting and dispersing. Yin on the other hand, is negative in sign and relates to femininity, nourishment, passiveness, cold, and darkness. Yin also refers to the decreasing, descending and contracting aspects of nature.

In terms of the seasons, the start of the yin cycle begins in autumn when the amount of daylight gradually decreases, and continues until the spring equinox when the days and nights are of the same duration. Since the autumn months mark the beginning of the yin cycle, there is a tendency towards isolation, sadness, and grieving. For those people whose constitution (due to gender, genetics, environment, and lifestyle) is more yin in nature, these feelings may be even more pronounced. Hormonal changes in both men and women can influence mood. Based on TCM, the winter months are associated with the Kidney system, the root of our vital Qi (energy). It is natural to crave those foods that provide a quick source of energy and that are high in calories since extra energy can be stored as fat in the body to help keep the body warm. Since our body must already use a lot of energy in the winter to fend off the wind and cold, it is also natural to feel more lethargic and emotionally and physically sensitive to our surroundings at this time. Undue physical, mental, or emotional stress, a lack of sleep, and poor nutrition will only deplete the body’s energy further and increase the chances of experiencing not only depressed mood, but depressed immunity.

Traditional Chinese Medicine Therapies

Traditional Chinese Medicine is an ancient art and science based on over three thousand years of clinical experience that incorporates several modalities such as acupuncture, herbal medicine, tuina (Chinese massage therapy), exercise (tai chi and qigong), and diet therapy to regulate energy flow and restore balance in the body. In TCM, energetic imbalances are closely associated with chemical, mental, emotional, and physical disturbances within the body. The bioelectric properties of acupuncture points and meridians have been substantiated in several experiments. While research in TCM continues to grow exponentially, acupuncture itself, has been accepted by the World Health Organization as a useful therapy for many conditions. Although it is already well known for its effects on pain control, acupuncture is also helpful in treating several neurological, immunological, and hormonal disorders and preliminary studies have given promising results for its treatment of depression. From a western medical perspective, these studies have shown that acupuncture releases serotonin and noradrenaline-norepinephrine in animals, common stimulants used in the treatment of depressive disorders. As well, recent studies suggest that electro-acupuncture maybe a viable alternative to the use of tricyclic antidepressants. The benefit of this is that acupuncture carries no extra side effects.

From a TCM perspective, the body must be viewed as a whole that is part of a greater whole. Each person is unique and therefore, specific signs and symptoms relating to a person’s physical, mental and emotional state as well as their lifestyle, diet, and environment must be taken into account. Since the diagnosis and treatment are holistic in nature, it is possible to discover the underlying cause as well as any contributing factors of the condition. For a condition such as seasonal affective disorder, Traditional Chinese medicine considers it essential to look at the whole body and its surrounding environment and treat according to the particular pattern (excess/deficient, hot/cold, wet/dry, etc.) associated with the disorder. An imbalance of either yin or yang qualities eventually leads to illness and must therefore be treated accordingly so that the body’s innate ability to heal itself on all levels is restored.

What to do about SAD

Acupuncture and other modalities of TCM, can indeed be helpful for those who suffer from seasonal depression as they can bring the body to a more balanced state. In certain conditions, medication and psychotherapy may be necessary, and the advice of a physician should be heeded. The following are ways in which you can achieve a more harmonious state of existence by following the wisdom of the changing seasons:

During the fall and winter months, it is important to keep physically active but not to overstrain oneself. Outdoor activities such as skating, skiing or snowshoeing or even indoor stretches and exercises such as swimming, yoga, or tai qi, are excellent ways to keep a healthy mind and body. Special care should be taken to ensure that one has proper nourishment, rest and a comfortable living environment. At this time, there is a tendency to reflect inwardly and conserve energy, in order to prepare for the spring when energy is once again full and abundant. Allow your self to rest more and spend time in solitude to consider the past, present, and future. Although the tendency to become more inactive and isolated is reflective of the retracting nature of winter, it is also important to communicate openly with those close to you so that you can nourish your personal relationships and maintain a healthy and positive outlook on life. By addressing your physical and mental needs in the winter, you can prevent other ailments from occurring in the future. And by appreciating the natural changes in the seasons and within ourselves, you naturally adopt a more healthy and balanced lifestyle in mind, body, and spirit.

For more about the author, please go to the following link:


  1. Cohen, MR (1996) The Chinese way to healing: many paths to wholeness. New York, NY: The Berkley Publishing Group.
  2. Gascoigne S (2001) The clinical medicine guide: a holistic perspective. Cork, Ireland: Jigme Press.\
  3. Haas EM. (2003) Staying healthy with the seasons. Berkeley, CA: Celestial Arts.
  4. Hans JS (1986) Electroacupuncture: an alternative to antidepressants for treating affective diseases? Int J Neurosci. 29:79-92.
  5. Helms JM (1995) Acupuncture energetics: a clinical approach for physicians. Berkeley, CA: Medical Acupuncture Publishers.
  6. Herring MA, Roberts MM (2002) Blackwell complementary and alternative medicine: fast facts for medical practice. Oxford, England: Blackwell Science, Inc.
  7. Luo H, Jia Y, Zhan L (1985) Electro-acupuncture vs amitriptyline in the treatment of depressive states. J Tradit Chin Med. 5:3-8
  8. Ni M. (1995) The yellow emperor’s classic of internal medicine: a new translation of the neijing suwen with commentary. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc.
  9. O’Toole M, (ed.) (1997) Miller-Keane encyclopedia and dictionary of medicine, nursing, and allied health-7th edition. Philadelphia, PN: Saunders.
  10. Rakel RE, Bope ET, (eds.) (2003) Rakel and bope: conn’s current therapy 2003. Philadelphia, PN: Saunders.

Schnyer RN, Flaws B (1998) Curing

Back To Top

Free 15 Minute Video Call

Curious about the benefits of acupuncture?