Are you feeling constantly tired, abnormally sad and craving carbs or rich foods? If winter makes you feel like hibernating until Spring comes back, you might be suffering from the winter blues!
Everyone’s mood can be affected by the weather, but if the seasonal changes impact your entire sense of well-being, it could be related to seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. SAD is a kind of depression that appears at certain times of the year, usually in the Fall when the days get shorter and lasts through the winter. Although only 2 to 3% of Canadians will experience SAD in their lifetime, another 15% will experience the winter blues.
A few explanations are proposed to explain this change in our sense of well-being occurring during the Fall and Winter months. According to Chinese Medicine for example, Fall is perceived as a transition period, a time when everything slows down and we go from the more carefree attitudes of Summer into the serious and introspective energies associated with Autumn. It’s the season related to the Lung and Large intestine organs, which are associated respectively with the emotions of grief and letting go. This s the perfect time of the year to breathe in the new – new experiences, new people, new foods, etc. – and letting go of what is no longer serving us.
Another common explanation to the winter blues is the lack of sunlight. According to Météo média’s website, November and December are the months of the year when we are exposed to the least hours of sunlight. During these months, we only benefit from 86 and 80 hours of daylight compare to 274 hours during the month of July. This diminution in light exposure affects the productions and regulation of various neurotransmitters in the brain.
When the light diminishes, it’s perceived by our brain as a signal to go to sleep and it triggers melatonin production. Melatonin controls the sleep-wake cycle and its excessive level will result in having difficulty waking up and not feeling alert in the morning. The lack of sunlight also affects the rate of production and turn-over of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter associated with the sense of well-being and happiness. Since serotonin is also involved in regulating feeding and satiety, its deficiency often leads to carbohydrates cravings.
Some research suggests that a vitamin D deficiency might be the culprit. As the days get colder, we often tend to stay in more and thus reducing our vitamin D production. In various studies, the administration of vitamin D3 to people with SAD appeared to improve their mood.
My top 5 strategies to beat the winter blues
- Go for a walk outside every day. Research shows that we can manage or avoid SAD with as little as 30 to 60 minutes of exercise and 20 minutes of exposure to sunlight each day. I recommend combining both by walking outside and making sure to include deep breathing for optimal benefits. The simplest way to incorporate walking to our busy schedule is by going for a walk at lunch time, or by leaving our car or getting off public transportation 20 to 30 minutes away from the work place.
- Bright light therapy. Exposition to bright light early in the morning reduces the secretion of melatonin and stimulates a more natural waking cycle. For optimal benefits, make sure to choose a light box that is 10,000 lux – which is 20 times the strength of typical indoor lighting – and to use it every day. Benefits are noticeable within 2 to 4 days but consistency is the key.
- Drop the electronics at least 90 minutes before bedtime. Alternatively, the blue light produced by electronics screens from our tablets and cell phones interferes with our melatonin production and may affect the quantity and quality of our sleep.
- Incorporate a vitamin D3 supplement. In a 2014 meta-analysis, vitamin D3 supplementation (≥800 I.U. daily) was shown to be favorable in the management of depression in studies that demonstrate a change in vitamin levels, and the effect size was comparable to that of anti-depressant medication. In order to determine your optimal level of vitamin D3, it’s better to get it tested (25-hydroxyvitamin D or 25OHD). A recent paper indicates that the therapeutic range for vitamin D3 in depression is 50 and 85 nmol/L.
- Adopt a B Complex vitamins supplement. Certain B vitamins such as vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), vitamin B 12 and folates are involved in the production and metabolism of our neurotransmitters. Others, namely vitamin B1 (thiamin), vitamin B2 (riboflavin) and vitamin B3 (niacin), act as coenzymes in the production of energy. Vitamin B 5 (pantothenic acid) is important for our adrenal glands health. A deficiency in any of the B vitamins may manifest itself as fatigue and affect our sense of well-being. To obtain the best results from your B complex vitamins, make sure to select one which contains the most bioavailable forms of B vitamins in ratios that have been established scientifically.
Additionally, a B complex supplement containing the nutrient pyrroloquinoline quinine (PQQ) – an enzyme involved in the generation of new mitochondria and the maintenance of antioxidant defense systems – may provide additional benefits in relieving the symptoms associated with depression.
As Canadians, we can’t avoid winters! But we can definitely prevent and alleviate the symptoms associated with the winter blues and even with seasonal affective disorder. Adopting and incorporating these simple strategies will help us shine, even during the winter months!
- Canadian Mental Health Association: https://cmha.bc.ca/documents/seasonal-affective-disorder-2/
- Météo Média: https://www.meteomedia.com/api/sitewrapper/index?b=%2Fstatistics%2F&p=%2Fprevisions%2Fstatistics%2Findex&url=%2Fstatistics%2Fsuncloud%2Fcl7025250%2Fcaqc0363%2Fimperial%2F%3F
- Environmental Illness Resource: http://www.ei-resource.org/treatment-options/treatment-information/seasonal-affective-disorder-sad-treatment/
- Rosenthal NE. Winter blues: everything you need to know to beat seasonal affective disorder. New York, NY: Guilford Press; 2006.
- Spedding S. Vitamin D and Depression: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis Comparing Studies with and without Biological Flaws. 2014;6(4):1501-1518. doi:10.3390/nu6041501. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4011048/#B55-nutrients-06-01501