Banish Seasonal Affective Disorder with these 10 Simple Suggestions! 

Dr. Alex Keller ND - February, 2017

Seasonal Affective Disorder is real. It’s a mood disorder characterized by depression, anxiety, irritability and low energy. In other words, it’s as if we were woken from a state of hibernation and don’t want to be awake yet! As the days become shorter, our bodies adjust by producing more melatonin and by slowing down our overall metabolism via decreased thyroid function. 1 In a traditional sense, this would have led to less energy needs, meaning we could survive the winter on less food. It was also the season when productivity would decrease and people would rest in preparation for the upcoming labour-intensive summer months. Today, we work through the winter, at a much faster pace than ever, and we become concerned when our bodies and minds can’t keep up. Fear not: it’s completely normal.

 

Luckily, there are plenty of things we can do to combat the “Winter Blues” and keep going, even if our bodies are suggesting it’s time to hibernate.

#1 - Get more Sunlight!

Our bodies, like plants and animals, are diurnal systems. 2 This means they function cyclically based on sunlight. When the days shorten, our bodies shift into a preservation mode, slowing metabolism, reducing energy and encouraging more sleep via increased melatonin secretion. Most of these hormonal shifts are dictated by reduced production of Vitamin D, which normally happens in the skin when it’s exposed to sunlight. Other than using sunlamps, there’s not much we can do about the shorter days, However, by exposing ourselves to more sunlight during the day, we at least increase our Vitamin D production a little bit.

 

How: I don’t suggest walking outdoors in your bathing suit when it’s sub-0C. Instead, go for walks on a daily basis and ensure your face is exposed to the sun. The pineal gland, which sits behind your nose, is the master gland for controlling hormonal rhythms, and it being exposed to sunlight will make a big difference. If it’s warm enough, you can also expose your arms or other body parts to increase sun exposure and subsequent vitamin D production.

 

Caveat: Some believe that in northern climates, we never get enough vitamin D year round. 3 I don’t believe this, but do suspect when the sun is lower in the winter that it’s much harder to stimulate the vitamin D production in our skin. It, therefore, takes more time in the winter, meaning longer exposure to sunlight via outdoor activities or using a sunlamp regularly.

 

#2 - Get more Fresh Air!

This one goes hand in hand with sunshine. Getting some fresh air increases the oxygen you breath in, most likely gets you moving, refreshes your brain, and resets yours senses. With the winter being cold and miserable, we often hunker down and lock ourselves indoors. That’s not necessarily far off from what would have been done in the past, but since we choose not to slow down with our daily lives, we need to do what we can to improve the function of our system.

 

How: Bundle up and go outside! Aim to get a minimum of 15-30 minutes per day outside. If you’re a dog owner, this won’t be hard. If not, either make yourself one or schedule in a few short walks per day.

 

#3 - Drink Enough Water!

Not often considered for SAD, hydration is important at all times of year, including winter. The cold season tends to be the dry season, which means we should be hydrating well as during the warm seasons. With a lack of outdoor heat, we may also forget the need to hydrate throughout the day. Drinking enough water will prevent common ailments like headaches, muscle soreness, low energy and irritability.

 

How: Aim to drink between 1.5-3.0L per day. If you exercise regularly, drink an extra litre per hour of exercise to compensate for sweating. I also recommend setting a timer or using an app like Plant Nanny to remind you to drink small amounts frequently versus large amounts infrequently.

 

#4 - Supplement with Vitamin D or Cod Liver Oil

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that is part of a myriad of bodily functions including immune function, mood regulation, muscle health, bone density and energy. 4 It’s predominantly produced in our skin when exposed to sunlight, meaning we should have sufficient amounts in the warmer months, provided we spend enough time outside. Our stores of vitamin D can last several months stored in our fat tissue 5, meaning we can usually make it to Christmas before we start to run low. I purposely didn’t put this one at the top because we shouldn't have to rely on supplements. That said, consuming a food-based supplement like cod liver oil (CLO) has been a way to get supplemental vitamin D for ages. CLO is one of the best sources of fat-soluble vitamins A and D, as well as essential fatty acids. 6 Prior to extraction methods, people would have preserved vitamin-rich fish or meat that they could consume throughout the winter. Today, people consume far less fish, let alone CLO, so they have no means of getting dietary vitamin D.

 

If CLO or preserved fish isn’t your thing, you can now access vitamin D supplements. Always ensure you get a liquid based form that’s cholecalciferol (D3). The liquid based solutions will be much better absorbed.

 

How: Take 1 tsp of a well-reputed cod liver oil. That’s actually a hot topic these days as we try to figure out which is the best way to extra CLO. Currently, the trend seems to be leaning toward “Extra-Virgin” CLO made by a Norwegian company Rosita, which uses an old extraction method that prevents the breakdown of highly sensitive essential fatty acids. Prior to Rosita’s surge in popularity, it was blue ice fermented CLO that was considered the gold standard. Another more commonly accessible brand is Carlson. Although it may not be considered the absolute ideal form, I’ve seen it have positive clinical results, so I often recommend it for affordability’s sake.

 

If taking a vitamin D supplement, aim for 1,000IU per day. Note that you won’t likely feel a change overnight, but you should feel a difference after a few weeks of regular supplementation.

#6 - Get Moving!

Exercise is one of best (if not THE best) antidepressants. 7 It’s so good, it has regularly shown comparable results to antidepressant medications for treating Major Depressive Disorder. 8 This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Humans evolved to move and we now move less than any society in the two-million year history of the human species! When we exercise, our body is flooded with endorphins and neurotransmitters that make us feel “high”. It’s a similar feeling to having a cup of coffee. Amazing to think that the human body has a built-in system to make us feel so good!

 

Similar to the discussion of fresh air, in a traditional sense humans wouldn’t have moved much in the winter months. Today, however, we expect the body to keep going, so we have to trick it into thinking it’s summer year round. Moving regularly will help this and help keep the metabolism at a higher level. This will result in increased energy, better sleep, less depression/anxiety/irritability, and an overall feeling of well-being.

 

Exercise is truly that Miracle Drug everyone is looking for!

 

How: I prefer that people move regularly versus exercising intensely only a few times a week. There are benefits to changing how you move (cardio vs strength vs high-intensity), but it doesn’t mean you have to have an extensive workout every day. Simply make sure you move more frequently every day to get your blood flowing. Take regular breaks from sitting, walk the stairs, park further from entrances, go for walks...the ways to get movement are endless!
 

#7 - Maintain Stable Blood Sugar

This is an important one year-round and something we’re seeing more frequently as our diets shift to a processed-food, carbohydrate-heavy trend. If we don’t eat to balance our blood sugar, we experience fluctuating levels of energy throughout the day, which puts our bodies into a constant state of stress. When blood sugar is low, the body responds by secreting stress hormones like cortisol, which cause release of stored sugars and fatty acids to maintain energy. This is a survival mechanism, but doing it several times every day causes the body to be in a state of chronic stress, which further exacerbates SAD.

 

How: It’s critical that you consume healthy proteins and fats with every major meal. Carbohydrates are equally important, but not usually hard to get, so focus on the other two. Also, ensure you consume vegetables at every meal, consume sufficient fibre, and minimize processed foods. You can also have small balanced snacks between meals like a handful of nuts/seeds, fruit with nut butter, or vegetables with hummus. Doing this will result in more stable energy and mood, less hunger, and fewer related symptoms like headaches or an upset digestive tract. It also staves off more serious diseases like diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

#8 - Get Out There and Socialize!

Staying connected with friends in the winter months is a great way to prevent SAD, although it’s not always easy when your friends are suffering from it as well. Having a good social network is another one of the best ways to prevent depression 9, and ensuring you maintain close connections with family and friends year-round will help buffer the effects of less sun and lower metabolism. It’s another way traditional cultures would have survived the tough winters - by “hibernating” together.

 

How: Aim to socialize with family or friends at least 1-2 times per week. Support one another with the above strategies; it will make the winter even better. Ideal would be to socialize in an outdoor setting or in the presence of a well-balanced meal. It doesn’t take anything extreme, but knowing you have that connection waiting is also often motivation enough to get people going.  

#9 - Practice Stress Management Techniques!

Maintaining a good practice of stress management techniques is another way to shield you from the darkness that winter may bring. Remember that our bodies are programmed to slow down and reduce metabolism for the winter. If we try to push through this, it causes the body to think it’s in a state of stress, which accentuates symptoms of anxiety, eventually leading to depression. By knowing how to balance this stress with certain techniques, it helps reduce the anxiety and stave off the SAD.


How: This one if often challenging for people because they don’t know where to start. My simple answer: DO LESS. The more time you can find to relax and clear your thoughts, the more you’re practicing mindfulness. More formal activities would include meditation, yoga, mindful exercise (movement in silence), silent nature walks, regular quiet breaks throughout the day, tai chi, qi gong, martial arts, playing music, partaking in a creative activity….the list is endless. The point is, you have to disconnect from the everyday stresses of life. Again, if we choose to push through our natural rhythms to slow down, we have to compensate by doing a little less to meet our bodies half way.

 

#10 - If All Else Fails, Take a Vacation!

As the title says, if you’ve put all these practices into place and you’re still feeling the Winter Blues, it’s time to hit the reset button and go away, preferably somewhere sunny and warm. This certainly isn’t an option for everyone (including us!), but if you’re on a budget, there are more and more ways to access the south in an affordable way. One way or another, if you can get somewhere south and into the warm sun for a few days, you immediately increase your skin’s vitamin D production, which leads to increasing your storage amounts in the body. As mentioned above, you basically buy yourself a few months of vitamin D storage, which in most places is enough to carry you through to the Spring. If you’re suffering from SAD every year, it may not be a bad idea to put some money aside and plan a short trip in January or February.

 

How: One excellent and often exciting method is to book a last minute trip with trip wholesalers looking to fill remaining seats. Not knowing where you’re going until the last minute can be exciting for some, but stressful for others. Another option is to seek out cheap flights and rent a house in a warm country. You can then prepare your own food, which you will often find at local farmers’ markets or road-side food stands, depending where you go. It doesn’t have to be fancy, so long as you can get a little closer to the equator and get some sun exposure on your skin.

 

Summary

Our bodies are built to slow down and “hibernate” in the winter. It’s the only way they would have recouped from the prior year’s labour and prepared for the upcoming year’s work seasons. Today, we don’t typically maintain seasonal work and instead work through the winter. This puts our bodies into a state of stress, especially when deprived of the sunshine vitamin, Vitamin D.

 

By following these simple strategies and maintaining good overall health, you help prevent or overcome Seasonal Affective Disorder. Do note that you won’t likely feel a shift overnight when implementing these changes, but within a few weeks, you should feel like yourself again. If you’ve got good strategies in place and you’re still finding you have a mid-winter slump, plan a regular holiday where you can reset your Vitamin D stores and have the energy you need to push through the rest of the “Dark Months”.

 

Live well!

Dr. Alex

 

 

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