Give the winter blues a boot with these 5 tips

Give The Winter Blues A Boot With These 5 Tips

Have you ever noticed feeling the “blues” every year around this time? A lot of individuals attribute this lower mood to limited sunlight around winter months. However, science has proven these “winter blues” to be a more serious condition, known as seasonal affective disorder or SAD. 

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

SAD is a form of depression that follows the seasons, starting in late fall and usually goes away by early spring. It tends to increase in prevalence the further you move away from the equator. In Canada, 15% of the population experience the winter blues and 2-6% experience full-on SAD. SAD occurs 4x more often in women compared to men and onset is estimated to be between 18-30 years (Melrose, 2015). 

How Does SAD Develop?

SAD develops as a result of the shortening of daylight hours in the winter months, which causes a shift in the normal circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythm is the body’s 24-hour clock which is synchronized to respond to the light-dark changes that happen everyday throughout the different seasons. In people with SAD, the circadian signal tends to be timed differently making it harder for the body to adjust and results in an increased production in melatonin and cortisol with a decrease in serotonin. Higher melatonin levels will increase a person’s desire to sleep for longer hours while increased cortisol will cause one to feel more agitated. Individuals can experience SAD at different intensities and for varying periods of time, so it does not present the same in every person. 
Furthermore, since there is less sunlight exposure during winter months, people with SAD produce less Vitamin D. A Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to depressive symptoms.  

Symptoms of SAD:

  • Feelings of sadness and low mood
  • Sleeping more than usual
  • Mood swings
  • Feeling lethargic
  • Increased appetite
  • Social withdrawal/anxiety
  • Irritability

How Can You Be Sure You Have SAD?

SPAQ, or Seasonal Pattern Assessment Questionnaire is a self-administered tool that helps to screen for SAD.  This questionnaire can help identify the severity of SAD in people.  You can access the questionnaire here: Link.
Please speak to your healthcare practitioner to help interrupt this tool and to decipher treatment.

5 Natural Tips To Help Treat SAD:

The question now is what can you do to protect yourself from SAD? Conventional treatments often include Antidepressant medications. Alternative interventions for SAD are multi-faceted involving diet and exercise regimens, meditation, light therapy and supplementation. 

1. Light Therapy

Light therapy works by replicating the effects of natural sunlight and uses bright artificial light, particularly in the morning. Bright light stimulates cells in the eye that are connected to a part of the brain that helps to control circadian rhythms and bring it back to baseline.
Light boxes can be purchased to emit full spectrum light, very similar to the composition in sunlight. All you need to do is sit in front of a light box with 10,000 lux white light first thing in the morning for about 30 minutes a day, or 2,500 lux white light for 2 hours a day. You can be reading, watching TV, making breakfast all at the same time!  Due to the energizing nature of these lights, using them before bedtime can affect the quality of your sleep. Adverse effects include: headaches, eyestrain and increased risk of age-related macular degeneration. 

2. Vitamin D Supplementation

Low levels of Vitamin D are associated with depression - this is a known fact! Vitamin D concentration is assessed by measuring the amount of 25-OH D in the blood. Insufficient levels are anything <30ng/mL. Low levels of Vitamin D are often due to insufficient dietary intake or not enough outdoor exposure to sunlight. During the winter months those living further away from the equator are unable to synthesize Vitamin D. Thus, people with SAD have insufficient levels of Vitamin D. 
To help offset the lower Vitamin D levels in the winter months, take short outdoor walks during the day. Sit near a window when you are home and doing some work. Increase the amount of natural light in your home just by keeping the blinds open! Light helps to re-establish the circadian rhythm through the manufacturing of hormones that signal our bodies when to sleep and when to stay awake. If you still feel like Vitamin D is lacking, try taking a vitamin D supplement that can help to replenish your stores. It is best to get Vitamin D levels tested before supplementing as this can help with determining dosage. Dosages can vary from 2,000 IU-10,000 IU. Adverse reactions or intoxication can occur from doses of more than 50,000 IU per day

3. Nutrition

The foods we chose to ingest have a significant influence on manufacturing hormones that are necessary for optimal brain function. Many people with SAD crave carbohydrates, probably as a way to raise serotonin levels. However, excessive carbohydrate consumption may result in an imbalance in blood sugar levels which would further increase feelings of low energy and further increase cravings. Therefore, it is important to make sure the foods you chose to eat are high in healthy fats and protein, while limiting starches and sugar. You want to make sure you are eating healthy fats like fish, walnuts, soybeans, flax seeds. As well, protein helps to support serotonin synthesis. The body needs about 0.8g/kg of protein depending on your activity levels. 
Aim for well-balanced meals throughout the day, which has a source of protein and healthy fat at every meal. Overall, a diet that is high in protein, vegetables, unprocessed foods and complex carbohydrates make for less fatigue and better mood. Make sure you are opting for the brightly coloured fruits and vegetables. Winter is the perfect time for warming foods like soups and stews. 

4. Regular Exercise

Exercise is an extremely powerful tool for boosting serotonin and endorphins.  It not only helps with self-confidence but can also help to alleviate stress, anxiety while improving mood at the same time. Benefits of regular exercise include:
  • Managing food cravings and weight
  • Improving sleep quality
  • Less fatigue throughout the day
  • Stimulating the production serotonin which can result in improved mood
  • Improving in heart health
Aim for 30 minutes of activity 5-6 times a week. This can be as simple as walking your furry animal. Just be sure to get outside and get moving! 

5. Counselling

Counselling can help to provide support to people with SAD. Counselling, specifically a technique called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can help to break down issues that can be quite overwhelming and stress provoking by changing the way people respond to these negative emotions. 
In addition to counselling, mindfulness and meditation practices are also very beneficial for mental health. It only takes 5-10 minutes to unwind and withdraw from your external environment. Guided meditations are awesome before bed as they help to gather your thoughts and relax the mind to get a restful sleep. If meditation is not for you, take 5 minutes during the day or just before bed to sit and focus on your breathing which can help manage stress and enhance positivity. My favourite breathing technique that helps to lower stress and anxiety is 4-7-8. Breathe in through your nose for 4 secs; hold your breath for 7 seconds and exhale through your mouth for 8 seconds. This helps to get your body out of the regular sympathetic tone which elicits the fight or flight response and helps to activate the parasympathetic tone which aids in relaxation and calmness. 
Seasonal affective disorder is a serious mental health condition that is mostly felt during the fall and winter months. People with SAD or the winter blues experience low moods, fatigue, increased appetite and an increased desire to sleep. Individuals who live in Northern latitudes have a higher risk of being affected by SAD. Use the SPAQ to help address the intensity of SAD and then use the natural treatments in this post to help bounce back! To reduce your risk of SAD and help manage symptoms make sure to get as much sunlight as you can, supplement with Vitamin D if necessary, eat right, get some exercise on a regular basis and most importantly speak to your healthcare provider for some extra support and guidance!
The advice in this article is for informational purposes only. It does not replace the care of a Naturopathic physician.