Have you been noticing that you’ve been feeling the desire to hibernate?
Feeling kind of lower in mood?
Or irritable, agitated…maybe those closest too you have been calling you more moody.
Have you had the desire to consume more carbohydrate rich foods (sweet treats!), more junk foods, more comfort foods?
Have you been gaining a little bit of weight that you didn’t intend to?
Have you been wanting to kind of just stay amongst yourself, not really socialize too much?
You may be experiencing seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as winter blues or winter depression.
The further we are from the equator and incredibly healing power of the sun, the more common it is to see it.
In North America, we experience shorter days between the months of September to April, but we can feel the expression of SAD more intensely between December and February.
A key reason for SAD symptoms due to a lack of natural vitamin D production. One way Vitamin D is produced is as a response to our skin being exposed to sunlight. And with the shorter days during the winter season, we have less exposure to sunlight.
Our circadian rhythm – our internal, 24-clock which regulates the physiological processes (a common being our sleep-wake cycle) – is also impacted by the shortened days. We see a shift because a key external cue is the sun, and with less sunlight, our clock sways from it’s typical 24-hour rhythm.
To add, two key hormones that are affected shortened days are melatonin and serotonin. Melatonin regulates sleep patterns and mood and will be discussed below. Serotonin is a brain chemical that is important for regulating our mood and our appetite. With the shortened days, serotonin is typically decreased, which can lead to the symptoms listed above such as carbohydrate rich foods, feeling lower in mood, wanting to be isolated, and going into “hibernation-mode.”
Here are some natural suggestions to consider implementing for managing seasonal affective disorder.*
Lightboxes (aka. Phototherapy and bright light therapy)
The goal of lightboxes are to compensate for shortened
exposure to sunlight. The minimum time that’s usually recommended to start to get
benefit from it ranges from 15 to 30 minutes per day.** It’s also important to ensure
that the amount of light power you’re getting is around 10,000 lux.** Also ensure that the light that you’re being
exposed to is full spectrum light because we don’t want you to be exposed to
harmful UV lights.
To add, it’s also important to consider if you’re taking any supplements or medications which may make your eyes more sensitive to that light because that’s a key thing to factor in when using this type of therapy.
Personalyl, I’ve benefited from using the light box. I started using it a few years ago and combined with other suggestions below, I noticed it helped me to shape my routine, and feel I’m getting access to more light – especially with leaving early in the morning before the sun was out, and returning home after the sunset, while being indoors most of the day.
During exercise we produce those happy, pain-relieving chemicals called endorphins. The types of exercise you choose can vary – for example, there’s HIIT (high intensity interval training), cardio, yoga, dance, weight training. As long as you’re moving your body (and at some points trying to work up a sweat), you will receive that endorphin-boost. To get more bang for your buck, incorporate taking a walk outside during daylight hours.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) & Support
CBT is a system of therapy that addresses the relationship between thoughts, behaviors, and emotions, and looks at the continual dynamic between all of them. With this form of therapy, you can also learn about your coping mechanisms and strengthen how you deal with your perception of what’s going on in life and manage what is truly occurring in your life and its impact on you.
I strongly encourage individuals who are dealing with seasonal affective disorder (and/or anxiety and/or depression), to seek a counselor or therapist to assist them with developing a toolbox to regulate their mood alongside life experiences.
When it comes to building a support network, it’s important to have trusted individuals who you can talk to, check in with, and feel connected to. Members of your support network can also include friends, family members, peer groups, along with counselors, your healthcare practitioners, and anyone else who is assisting you on your health journey to ensure that you are achieving your goals and also know you to ensure your mental wellbeing and physical emotional wellbeing.
That being said, I encourage you as well to be familiar with the resources at your disposal if you know somebody or if you yourself have this concern of really low mood and possibly suicide. This information is readily accessible by doing a google search in your area for “suicide awareness hotlines” and “crisis/distress hotlines.”
Another key piece of advice that I will always recommend comes to that of what you’re eating. As Hippocrates stated, “let thy food be thy medicine.” Many of the foods that we eat contain the nutrients which become the building blocks for essential functioning in our bodies.
Ways of Eating
Key eating plans to consider are well-balanced, such as the Mediterranean diet and anti-inflammatory diet.
In addition to decreased exposure to natural sunlight during the winter season, there are also decreased amounts of vitamin D – and this be an additional concern for people who already have a vitamin D deficiency in the spring and summer months.
I strongly encourage you to get your blood levels tested by your primary healthcare provider so that you can understand where your levels are at and if it’s something that you’ll need to supplement. This is also important because when it comes to supplementation, you want to be specific and targeted in the dosages and forms being used.
5-HTP is naturally produced by the body, yet we need sufficient levels of the amino acid tryptophan to be able to convert 5-HTP into serotonin. 5-HTP is commonly recommended to manage SAD because of that relationship between serotonin and mood.***
Melatonin is produced in the pineal gland (an area in our brain) and helps to manage our sleep-wake cycle. This is one of my favorite go-to supplements because I tend to have a delayed sleep cycle where, if left to my own devices, my bedtime would get later and later.
Melatonin is created from tryptophan, which is stimulated by the pineal gland in response to seeing light. With the increased amount of darkness during the winter season, melatonin levels may become unbalanced, leading to lethargy. Still, some individuals choose to supplement with melatonin to regulate their sleep and wake cycle.
SAM-e (S-Adenosyl methionine)
SAM-e is also produced by the body and is produced from the amino acid methionine. SAM-e donates methyl groups to different processes in the body, which makes it helpful for forming building blocks. This is important in the creation of our neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine.
St. John’s Wort (SJW)
SJW blocks the uptake of neurotransmitters (such as serotonin and dopamine) from the nerve cell space. This allows us to derive the benefits from serotonin and dopamine for a longer period of time.***
Equipped with this knowledge and these tools, there is no longer any need to fear the winter season (aside from the cold and slippery weather!). Let us know if you incorporated any of these suggestions into your life, and if there’s anything else you suggest for overcoming the winter blues. Be safe and stay well!
*This article contains general advice, you are advised to consult with a healthcare practitioner for more individualized guidance, especially when addressing the root cause of health concerns.
**that is the standard recommendation yet discuss with a healthcare practitioner or an expert who can make sure you’re getting what you need.
***another reason it is important to consult with a skilled healthcare practitioner is if you’re taking any SSRIs, which would be contraindicated in the use of 5-HTP and SJW due to the concern of serotonin syndrome.