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Just winter blues, or could it be SAD?

Updated: Jun 3, 2019

By Spomenka Bizic, ND

As the amount of sunlight shortens and we enter the winter months many people suffer from something called SAD: seasonal affective disorder. SAD is characterized by depressive symptoms that are brought on due to the change of seasons, in our part of the world mostly due to winter.

Signs and symptoms of SAD include:

  • tiredness/fatigue especially in the evening

  • need for more sleep/difficulty waking up in the morning

  • difficulty concentrating

  • irritability and gloominess

  • withdrawing from regular social activities

  • increased appetite: especially for carbohydrates (more sweets)

  • feeling “down”

  • women are affected more often than men, and family history plays a role

  • all of the above occurring during the winter months with no other cause

The last point above is really important. As a holistic practitioner I really do believe that some amount of wanting to be more quiet, eat comfort foods, and be less outgoing in the winter are normal. Winter is what we consider a yin time in Chinese Medicine. A time for going inward, reflecting, slowing down, and harvesting the activities of the year as it comes to an end. Other life events can also affect your mood: big transitions, grief, loss of a job or relationship being some. But if you are noticing you are depressed due to the winter itself, year after year, you may be dealing with SAD.

While it is unknown why SAD occurs some of the explanation lies in hormonal regulation. Melatonin is the hormone our body produces when we see daylight – and decreases as it gets darker. This naturally rules our circadian rhythm (awake/sleep cycle). So – you can imagine that as it gets darker we produce less melatonin and feel more sleepy! This brings us to some of the treatments for SAD:

Light-therapy: light-boxes were created to mimic outdoor exposure to light and have been found extremely effective in treating depressive-symptoms due to SAD. In one study light therapy was compared to taking fluoexetine (an SSRI) and found to be as equally effective without the side-effects of this medication. When choosing a light box make sure that it emits 10, 000 lux of light and as little of UV light as possible. For optimal results you would sit next to it within the first 30 min to an hour of waking. Did you know that the Halifax Public Libraries now offer this resource? You can book a light-box and sit and read your favorite book at the library.Vitamin-D: Also known as the sunshine vitamin, low levels have been linked to depression. Our body produces vitamin-D due to sunshine causing a cascade of events when we are exposed to it. Always check with your doctor or naturopath about your levels before supplementing.Exercise: Elevates our “feel-good” endorphins combating depression. Even just a 30-40min walk outside, raising your heart rate a few times a week has plenty of positive health outcomes. A walking buddy may also be a good way to “get through the winter” with a friend, especially because connection is more and more being connected to happiness and health outcomes.Diet: Moderation is key. It may be tempting to want to eat those feel good treats, but too many high-carb foods will just leave you craving more and causing blood sugar imbalances. Regulating your blood sugar and feeding your gut bacteria healthy food is super important for mood. Did you know that close to 90% of serotonin (a feel good hormone) is made in the gut? Eating balanced meals that include protein rich sources (eggs, tofu, beans/legumes, fish), plenty of vegetables and fruit and those healthy fats (olive oil) will keep you and your gut satisfied. Eating warmer foods (soups, teas, using cinnamon) can also help you get that “sweetness” you crave.Other: There are plenty of other Naturopathic approaches to SAD and depression such as acupuncture, botanicals (St. John’s Wart), B vitamins and even fish-oil. An individualized approach is what I love about being a Naturopathic Doctor.Mindfulness: My personal favorite. Noticing our thoughts, feelings and behaviors can really help us with something like SAD. Meditation can help us slow down and notice how we are– which then opens up the gateway to getting what we need, whether it’s professional help, or moving our body more, or reframing our perspective. Working with our mind could even open us up to appreciating the beauty of winter and noticing some of the thoughts we might have around “winter blues”.

If you’re interested in what Naturopathic Medicine can do for you, I am now offering complimentary 15-minute consults at the clinic.

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