Feeling S.A.D.? Five Tips to Beat the Winter Blues
Last week I wrote a blog about three natural ways to beat jet lag and this week I figured I’d stick to the theme of circadian rhythm disruption and address something that is quite timely: seasonal affective disorder (S.A.D. for short- finally an acronym that makes sense!)
Not familiar with S.A.D.? Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that has to do with the time of year. It typically starts in the fall when days start getting a lot shorter and we are exposed to less and less sunlight. The reduced sunlight dysregulates our melatonin and serotonin production, in turn affecting the delicate balance of our circadian rhythms. Because we’re so far north of the equator, us Canadians are far more likely to develop this disorder, or a milder version of it, at some point in our lives. Bad news, ladies- women are nine times more likely to be diagnosed with S.A.D. compared to men.
S.A.D. symptoms can include daytime fatigue and/or difficulty sleeping at night, irritability, feelings of sadness and/or hopelessness, overall higher stress levels, loss of interest in activities that you’d normally enjoy, and higher appetite and cravings for carbs. Only 3% of Canadians are affected by a diagnosable form of this disorder, but up to 20% will experience a mild form of S.A.D. brought on by cold, grey fall and winter months. And after the cold snap we had this January in Calgary, I’m sure I’m not the only one feeling like I fall into this category.
Luckily, there are some diet and lifestyle changes we can make to reduce the symptoms of S.A.D. Here are my top 5 tips to beat the winter blues!
1. Salute the Sun
Consistency in our exposure to light and dark cycles is the number one environmental factor that regulates our circadian rhythm, so it’s no surprise that our northern winters can have such a huge impact on our inner clocks. Just be thankful you don’t live in Iceland, where they get only 4 hours of sunlight on the winter solstice (and if you do live in Iceland, you’ll definitely want to read this article!)
One of the best things you can do if you suffer with S.A.D., whether diagnosed or a mild form, is spend some time outside in the sunlight everyday- ideally 30 minutes before noon. This helps to regulate circadian rhythm by increasing serotonin production. Serotonin is the precursor to melatonin, so this is especially important if you experience any sleep issues at night. Sunlight also increases beta-endorphins which can help decrease cravings for carbs. Lucky for us Calgarians, we get a ton of sunlight in the winter so this shouldn’t be difficult for us. If you live in a darker, more dreary spot like Vancouver and you deal with S.A.D., you may need to invest in a full spectrum light therapy lamp.
2. Up Your Protein Intake
With reduced exposure to sunlight, our bodies don’t make as much serotonin as we need, affecting our happiness levels. As mentioned above, lower serotonin levels mean less melatonin production, which can decrease sleep quality and quantity. Increasing protein intake in the winter months can therefore facilitate extra serotonin production, which is amino-acid based. A diet higher in protein will also help if you experience cravings for sugary and starchy carbs in the winter, another symptom caused by lowered serotonin levels. Upping your protein consumption and ensuring you have a high-protein breakfast especially will help keep you feeling energized all day.
One of my favourite sources of protein to increase in the winter months are pasture-raised eggs. Egg yolks contain a good amount of vitamin D, aka “the sunshine vitamin”, which helps in the winter months when we’re exposed to a lot less sunlight than usual. Eggs also contain a few other important fat-soluble vitamins like A, E, and K, and choline, a very special B-vitamin that is essential for healthy neurotransmitter production- keeping our cognitive function on point and reducing symptoms like brain fog, irritability, anxiety, and insomnia!
3. Supplement Wisely
Ensuring you’re keeping up with a healthy whole foods diet consisting of lots of dark leafy greens, fresh fibre-containing veggies and fruits, healthy fats, and good-quality protein is so crucial in the winter months, but supplementation may be necessary to make sure you’re getting optimal nutrient intake. The reality of living in a northern climate and country means that a lot of the food we’re getting is coming a long way from somewhere warm, and the longer the transit time the more nutrients are lost before we get to consume it. This along with our increased risk for S.A.D. means we need to take extra care to keep nutrient levels up; thus, taking supplements is a useful addition to your dietary regime in the winter.
If you’re not taking any supplements, I highly recommend taking omega-3 fish oils, a good-quality B complex, and vitamin C. These are wonderful to take year-round, but are especially important in the winter months. The EPA and DHA in fish oil are powerful nutrients for the brain. B vitamins are crucial for energy production and with relaxation and stress management. I love the way B vitamins make me feel; after just 6 weeks of taking them consistently, I’ve noticed a marked difference in my energy levels in the morning- so much so that I don’t feel dependent on caffeine at all to wake me up! If this sounds like you, you should definitely give B’s a try. Finally, staving off the dreaded winter cold/flu isn’t the only thing vitamin C is good for in the winter, it’s also super important for serotonin production!
4. Avoid the Blood Sugar Crash
Craving carbs is a major symptom of decreased serotonin levels from shorter days and less sunlight exposure. Which means it’s perfectly normal to increase carb consumption in the winter. The unfortunate thing about this is it can wreak havoc on our insulin levels and blood sugar regulation, which can further exacerbate symptoms of irritability, sadness, and fatigue. When our blood sugar is out of balance we feel cranky, quick to react negatively, and sometimes even aggressive or prone to anger. And those are just the mood-related symptoms. Heart, liver, kidney, pancreatic, and adrenal health are all affected by long-term blood sugar dysregulation; as are digestive and hormone health.
So when we’re experiencing S.A.D. and increased cravings for sugary and starchy carbs, it’s especially important to make sure you’re consuming blood sugar balancing foods. The best foods to balance blood sugar are good quality fats like avocado, olives, coconut, full-fat, grass-fed yogurt, olive oil, nuts, seeds, etc. Ensuring you’re getting adequate protein is also key. Choosing fresh, whole foods over processed, refined, and packaged foods is crucial. When you are having natural sugar-containing foods like sweet potato and fruits, I recommend pairing it with a higher-fat food (like those listed above) to slow the blood sugar spike and help you stay satiated for longer.
5. Cope with Stress
This may be the only “instant” relief you can get if you suffer from S.A.D., so it’s important that you have a few stress-coping mechanisms in your back pocket for those extra gloomy winter days. The two I recommend for daily stress management and prevention are movement/exercise and meditation. Exercising, even when you’re feeling sluggish and low-energy in the cold, grey months, is essential to keep your spirits up. Beta-endorphins, which are basically mood boosters, are elevated after an exercise or movement session. If you find you’re too tired to hit the gym, qi gong, yoga, walking out in nature, or swimming are all amazing options.
Meditation is also so helpful for coping with stress and anxiety. Incorporating a consistent meditation practice into your routine has been shown to lower the stress hormone cortisol, calm the nervous system, and even restore balance to the digestive system, among many other benefits. That last point is key- an imbalanced digestive system means decreased nutrient absorption (meaning nutrients needed for healthy brain function could be lowered, worsening S.A.D. symptoms) and a dysregulated gut microbiome. What does the microbiome have to do with seasonal depression you ask? The gut makes ninety percent of the body’s serotonin. Can you believe that?! So ensuring optimal microbiome health is one of your best bets for reducing symptoms of S.A.D.
There you have it! If you struggle with seasonal affective disorder, I hope you find this article helpful. And if you know someone with S.A.D. that could benefit from this information, go ahead and share it with them.