Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Dealing with the Winter Blues

by Dr. Iva Lloyd, ND

Winter blues, or seasonal affective disorder (SAD), refers to bouts of depression and desire to sleep longer during specific periods of the year. SAD is most common in the winter months and is most prevalent in areas with decreased sunlight.  

Who is prone to Seasonal Affective Disorder?

  • Those individuals who spend more time indoors when it is cold and decrease their outside activities in the winter.
  • Those individuals who decrease their social activities and interaction with others in the winter months.
  • There tends to be an association between low thyroid function and increased risk of SAD.
  • High stress levels during the winter can increase the likelihood of SAD or can make it more extreme.
  • Conditions such as insomnia, depression, mood disorders or pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) are associated with increased risk.
  • Getting a cold or flu in the winter can often trigger SAD, especially if it lingers. Some blogs that you may find helpful include:

What Happens in the Mind

  • The shortening of daylight hours in the winter causes a shift in normal circadian rhythms which leads to increased production of melatonin and cortisol.
  • Melatonin is the hormone associated with sleep.  When melatonin increases a person's desire and ability to sleep longer is enhanced.
  • Cortisol is considered the stress hormone. When it rises people tend to feel more edgy. For some people the rise in cortisol results in feelings of sadness, for others it results in feelings of agitation or frustration.
  • Together an increase in melatonin and cortisol can result in a decrease in serotonin which is a mood-elevating neurotransmitter.

Symptoms of SAD

The two main symptoms that are always present include depression and increased desire to sleep. Other symptoms that may also be present include:
  • lethargy
  • daytime fatigue
  • melancholy
  • craving for carbohydrates
  • overeating with increased appetite
  • weight gain
  • loss of sexual interest
  • irritability

Natural Treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder

Staying active and social is an essential part of limiting the risk or severity the SAD has on you. Other strategies or natural treatments include:
  • When at home: Keep your drapes and blinds open. Sit near windows when relaxing or reading. On cloudy days, turn on bright lights - ideally full-spectrum lighting - in the room that you spend the most time.
  • Stay active - Get outside as much as possible, especially in the early morning light. Aim for 1 hour in the sun each day.
  • Dietary recommendations - there are a number of ways that diet can assist including:
    • Decrease alcohol and caffeine - or at a minimum, ensure that you don't increase them in the winter.
    • Eat by season. When it is cold outside, avoid cold, raw and dry food. Winter is a great time for soups, stews and casserole. Leave the smoothies and the salads for the summer.
  • Exercise - Stay active. Aim for 30 minutes of exercise at least three times a week, preferably outside. 
  • Sleep - As much as possible stick to the same sleep regimen that you have in the summer, especially as it relates to the number of hours that you sleep.
  • Vitamin D - Most people do better if they take Vitamin D in the winter months. To learn more about Vitamin D, read our blog titled, High Dose Vitamin D, is it safe and effective?
  • Natural health products (NHPs) - There are a number of NHPs that are used to address SAD including: Melatonin, Tryptophan, Fish Oil, and others. 
  • Herbs - St. John's Wort, Kava-kava and other herbs are often beneficial in the treatment of SAD.
  • Light therapy - There are a number of ways increasing your exposure to natural light. There are light visors that you can wear for 15 - 20 minutes a day, specific light bulbs that you can use in your home, light units that you sit in front of and other instruments.  Light therapy can be very effective on its own or as an adjunct to other therapies.
If you think that you have a case of the "winter blues" and would like advice on how to deal with it naturally, speak to one of our naturopathic doctors by calling the clinic at 905-940-2727 to book an appointment.