It’s fall already and with the start of school season there is a busyness back in the air; kids are back to school, and the fun and laid-back air of summer has disappeared only to return next year. The days have started to get shorter, and as a result, we tend to become sleepier, our bed times become earlier, and we find ourselves sleeping more. As the days shorten, it is common for the lack of sunshine to affect your mood.
In Canada, over 15% of people experience “winter blues”, while 2-6% experience Seasonal Affective disorder (SAD), a type of major depression. Recent studies have discovered possible biological reasons for this seasonal mood shift: people with SAD tend to have more serotonin transporter (SERT) protein during the cooler and darker months. With more SERT available, the level of active serotonin decreases, which can lead to low mood. Dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter, as well as melatonin, a sleep hormone, have been found to have seasonal changes which provides other mechanisms of SAD.
So, what can you do to beat SAD before it even starts? Here are six things you can do to ward off the winter blues before they even begin.
Check your vitamin D status
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin and hormone that has receptors in all tissues in the body including the heart, brain and immune system. It is responsible for bone health, immune system function, mood regulation, inflammation and many other bodily functions. Vitamin D levels tend to drop during the cooler months since the sun is much farther away from the northern hemisphere and we receive less sunlight. This makes it extremely hard for our skin to be able to synthesize vitamin D. Low levels of vitamin D have been linked with depression and may have a role regulating serotonin levels in our body. Vitamin D given to depressed patients with vitamin D deficiency show significantly improved depression symptoms. Everyone living in the northern hemisphere (that’s you!) should be testing their vitamin D levels regularly and correcting any imbalances that exist before symptoms occur.
Check your thyroid function
Your thyroid is a little gland in your neck with a mighty function. It regulates your metabolism, development and can affect mood, hair, skin and many other areas of the body. Thyroid conditions can be linked to SAD or be misdiagnosed due to this phenomenon. A recent study looking at SAD sufferers found they had elevated serum TSH levels, which indicates an underactive thyroid. Since SAD can be related to thyroid conditions, it’s beneficial to have your thyroid tested before it becomes an issue.
Get outside and exercise!
Getting proper exercise has been found over and over again to improve mood. Incorporating exercise into your weekly routine during the fall and winter can be extremely beneficial for combatting SAD or winter blues, and also keeping off that winter weight we tend to pack on. Exercising outside in the winter, especially in nature (think skiing) has been shown to ward off depression, increase our resilience and aid our immune system at the same time. If you are not an outdoor person, exercising with a mind-body connection (think yoga) has been found to have similar results. These activities also decrease our screen time which can be a major issue during the winter months, leading to lower mood, loneliness and obesity.
Deal with you stress
Stress management during any time of the year is extremely important, but as the days get shorter and darker, stress can feel less manageable. Incorporating stress management techniques into your daily life, such as exercise, a hot bubble bath, connecting with supportive friends and family, meditation, pet cuddles or whatever you find works best for you will make a huge difference this fall and winter. Getting into the habit now, before it becomes absolutely necessary will help to ward off those winter blues. Apaptogenic herbs like ashwagandha, licorice, holy basil and others can also assist in stress management during times of higher stress, including the winter months. Lastly, testing your stress hormones, such as cortisol, and dealing with any imbalances can help to increase your energy and allow you to manage stress more effectively.
Embrace the seasons
In Traditional Chinese medicine, each season is cyclically connected and has a corresponding element, emotion and organ systems that it works on. Winter is seen as a time to turn inward, reflect and rest. Our bodies naturally slow down as the temperatures decrease. Try to use this time to reflect on the past year and any lessons that may have come our way. This is our time to rest so that we can come out of winter renewed and ready for the hustle and bustle that spring and summer bring.
If you suffer from SAD, light therapy can be a great option. Light therapy mimics outdoor light and can cause reversal of the brain changes discussed above. Psychotherapy along with light therapy has seen the greatest results (ensuring you have ruled out other causes). Naturopathic doctors can do wonders with seasonal affective disorder and other mental health conditions. If you do suffer from SAD, please seek out the help of medical professionals- you do not have to suffer alone.
Overall, SAD and the winter blues are more common than most people realize. This year, be proactive and don’t let the bitter sting of SAD bite you in behind. Start now and have your best winter yet!
Dr. Sarah Brill-Morgan BSc, ND
Dr. Sarah Brill-Morgan, ND completed her bachelor’s degree in Health Science at Brock University and then went on to complete a Doctor of Naturopathy at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine (CCNM) in Toronto, Canada. During her last year at CCNM, she completed a one-year internship at the largest Naturopathic clinic in North America, the Robert Schad Naturopathic Clinic. She also had the opportunity to internship at the Sherbourne Health Centre, which specializes in treatment for HIV positive patients.
Throughout her studies, Dr. Brill-Morgan has had the pleasure to work in many communities throughout South and Central America, including Peru, Ecuador and Honduras. In her second year at CCNM, she organized a medical brigade to the shanty towns of Lima, Peru where they were able to listen to and treat a community in need. Dr. Sarah recently returned from working in Ubud, Bali at a transformational detox and fasting retreat centre. During this experience, she worked with various patients from all over the world to improve their health and wellbeing- whether they suffered from a debilitating condition, lost themselves in the hectic pace of everyday life, or just wanted to lose a few pounds. Through this experience, Dr. Sarah gained valuable insight into the physical and mental barriers present in obtaining optimal health and how to overcome them. She believes in a holistic, individualized approach to health and wellbeing and respects that everyone is on their own unique journey.
Dr. Sarah has a special interest in mental health, stress management and endocrinology (hormones). Dr. Sarah has her prescribing rights, which means she can prescribe desiccated thyroid and BHRT (bio-identical hormone replacement therapy). She is trained in Traditional Chinese Medicine including acupuncture, herbal medicine, nutrition and nutritional therapies, homeopathy, physical medicine and has additional training in holistic counselling. Dr. Sarah believes that naturopathic medicine is her gateway to connect with others and make the world a better place through improving the lives of others.
- Sher L, Rosenthal NE, Wehr TA. Free thyroxine and thyroid-stimulating hormone levels in patients with seasonal affective disorder and matched controls. J Affect Disord 1999 Dec;56(2-3):195-9.