With the days starting to get shorter and temperatures falling, along comes a drop in energy and mood . A weekend spent sipping tea and curling up with a cozy blanket while you “Netflix and Chill” is one thing, but if you consistently lack the energy or desire to do much, this could be more than just the winter blues.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is type of depression that occurs with a change in the seasons. It most commonly occurs during the fall and winter months but some people may experience it during the spring or summer. Although the physiology is still unclear, it is believed that a disruption in circadian rhythm may be at the root. This circadian disruption, thought to be due to a lack of sunlight and Vitamin D, affects our melatonin and serotonin production. Melatonin, most commonly known for promoting sleepiness, is produced in higher amounts in individuals with SAD, leading to more lethargy and sleepiness. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with happiness, was found to be decreased in individuals with SAD, potentially contributing to a lower mood.
Individuals suffering from SAD may experience the following symptoms:
Persistent low mood
Loss of interest in activities that you once brought you pleasure
Low energy (lethargy or sluggishness)
Changes in your sleeping pattern (oversleeping is common in SAD)
Changes in appetite
Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
Thoughts or harming yourself or others
If you or someone you know are experiencing symptoms of SAD, I strongly encourage you to speak with your primary healthcare provider.
My top 5 tips for managing SAD are:
1. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT that is tailored to SAD may be one of the most effective therapies. CBT can help to challenge and/or change negative thoughts associated with winter and determine strategies to help incorporate more enjoyable activities into your life.
2. Light Therapy. Light therapy is designed to mimic the sun’s rays and can help to reset your circadian rhythms. The light box should be used daily for 30 minutes (or longer depending on your individual needs) within the first hour of waking. The light should be placed at and angle to your eyes so that you are not looking directly into the lamp. It can be placed at eye level or higher so that it has a downward direction just like the sun. It should also be within about 1-2 feet of your eyes. This can be used while you’re enjoying your morning cup of coffee, reading, journalling, or doing other desk work. Light therapy requires a daily commitment for best results.
What to look for in a light box:
10,000 lux of light (lower lights will require more exposure time)
No UV light (light boxes that are designed to treat SAD should filter out UV rays)
Light boxes may not be suitable for everyone and therefore it is recommended that you speak with your health care provider before adding anything new to your health care routine to ensure that it is appropriate for you.
3. Vitamin D. Low levels of Vitamin D have often been associated with depression and according to Statistics Canada, 1 in 3 Canadians is deficient in Vitamin D. In order to determine an adequate dose for supplementation, I recommend having your Vitamin D levels tested with your primary health care provider. Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin so it is best taken with a little bit of fat for maximal absorption.
4. Move your body. Regular physical exercise is one of the most powerful therapies for depression. Start low and slow if you are just getting back into an exercise routine. The Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines recommend 150 minutes of moderate to vigorus exercise/week.
5. Keep your gut happy. The majority of our serotonin is produced in the gut and a happy gut starts with what kinds of foods we are putting in our body. Focus on eating lots of nutrient dense foods and keeping the highly processed foods and refined sugars out. Load up on your Omega-3s, as individuals with low levels of omega-3s are also more likely to experience symptoms of depression. Foods with high omega-3s include wild-caught, cold-water fish (SMASH- salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, herring), flax seeds, chia seeds and walnuts. Fermented foods should also be considered to support a healthy gut microbiome. Sources of fermented foods include fermented vegetables, coconut yoghurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, coconut milk kefir etc. You can also check out my Free Gut Healing Guide for additional gut happy tips.
These strategies can be implemented before symptoms begin to help prevent the onset of the winter blues or SAD. Talk to your healthcare provider about an individualized plan to help keep you healthy this upcoming winter.
Yours in health,
Dr. Emmalee Maracle ND