5 Natural Ways to Overcome the Winter Blues
As we approach the season with the longest, darkest nights, more of my patients are commenting on the downward shift in their mood and energy levels. Feeling sleepy, sad, tired, gaining a few extra pounds, experiencing a diminished libido or greater irritability are all symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, up to 15% of Canadians will experience at least a mild form of SAD, with women being nine times more likely than men to be diagnosed.
This is a common, and frustrating phenomenon. SAD can affect your energy, productivity, relationships and your body. If you are spending one third to half a year feeling poorly until the sun comes back out, consider a few natural options to help support your mood, improve your energy, and help you feel productive and effective even during the dark winter months.
First, get tested.
If these symptoms are new for you, it’s important to speak to a health care provider to ensure that it’s not something ‘else’ that is affecting you mood. As a starting point to investigate low mood and energy, I will often test thyroid, ferritin (iron stores), vitamin B12, and vitamin D. If any of these are suboptimal, they need to be addressed. Additionally, if your mood symptoms seem to be connected to your monthly cycle, then we might want to investigate your hormones more closely.
Once these have been investigated, here are some natural treatments options to support your mood throughout the winter.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega 3 fatty acids, namely EPA (eicosapentaeoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) have been demonstrated to be effective in cardiovascular disease prevention, due to their anti-inflammatory properties. Recently, new therapeutic indications for omega-3’s have been proposed, including for the treatment for certain forms of mental illness, such as depressive disorders. Some researchers hypothesize that depression may share certain pathophysiological mechanisms with cardiovascular disease, namely: inflammation. Providing fish oils with higher doses of EPA relative to DHA (in a ratio of at least 2:1) seem to be the most effective for mood support.
The evidence for an association between vitamin D deficiency or insufficiency and depression continues to mount, including the use of vitamin D supplementation as part of a comprehensive treatment plan for clinically diagnosed depression. North Americans are more likely to be deficient in vitamin D given our geographical location; almost everyone people can benefit from supplementation during the winter months. I encourage patients to get their vitamin D levels tested to help guide optimal dosing.
Light therapy is widely used to help treat SAD, with 53.3% of those with moderate SAD experiencing a remission in symptoms. A 10,000lux full spectrum or cool white lights set behind an ultraviolet light is the standard; these can come in portable units or desk lamps. Ideally, they are used for 30-120 minutes, for 2-4 weeks to obtain optimal results. Invest in a small SAD desk lamp and keep it at the kitchen table; turn it on while you eat your breakfast. Alternatively, get outside for a walk on your lunch break or whenever the sun peeks out to expose your skin and soak up the sunlight whenever possible.
Many studies have demonstrated the efficacy of exercise in reducing symptoms of depression and SAD, and boosting mood. Exercise boost serotonin and dopamine in the brain (or “happy” and “reward” neurotransmitters). Two daily sessions of light aerobic exercise, such as 25 minutes of stationary cycling for one week only was as effective as light therapy in a small sample of women with SAD. Exercise might feel like the last thing you want to do when you’re feeling down – get together with a workout buddy, ask a friend or partner to help keep you accountable, or sign up for yoga or spin classes in advance to encourage you to commit. The hardest part is putting your shoes on and leaving the house; I promise you will feel better after you finish your workout!
Less than 0.01% of our species history has been spent in urban or modern settings. The gap between the natural setting, for which we are physiological adapted, and the highly urbanized setting that we now live in is a one of the contributing causes of the chronic “stress state” we experience as a society. To date, over 50 studies have investigated the preventive medical effects of nature therapy, known as “Shinrin-yoku” (forest bathing). In Japan, Shinrin-yoku means “taking in the forest atmosphere through all of our senses.” The positive effects of nature therapy are due to its ability to induce a state of relaxation through exposure to forest-origin stimuli. Results of these studies demonstrate that walking in a forest or being exposed to urban green spaces can reduce one’s stress state, lower blood pressure, reduce cortisol levels (the stress hormone), decrease heart rate, and even improve immune function. Reduce your stress and enhance your mood by taking advantage of the beautiful Vancouver trails. Whether it’s a gentle nature walk with the stroller, or a more challenging day hike deep into the mountains, you’ll benefit from the gifts of nature in your body, mind and spirit.
These suggestions are one component of a comprehensive treatment plan to support your mood throughout the winter months. If you feel like you need additional support, schedule a consultation with myself or your healthcare provider to get you the support that you deserve to feel your best, no matter how dark and rainy it is outside.
Grosso, G, Pajak A, Marventano S., Castellano S, Galvano F, Bucolo C, Drago F, Caraci F. (2014) Role of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in the Treatment of Depressive Disorders: A Comprehensive Meta-Analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials.PLoS One, 9(5): e96905
Mead, G, Morley W, Campbell P, Greig C, McMurdo M, Lawlor D. (2009) Exercise for depression. The Cochrane Database.
Parker G, Brotchie H, Graham R. (2016) Vitamin D and depression. J Affect Disord, 208: 56.61.
Roeicklein, K. and Rohan K. (2005) Seasonal Affective Disorder: An overview and update. Psychiatry, 2(1): 20–26.
Song C, Ikei H, Miyazaki Y. (2016) Physiological effects of nature therapy: a review of the research in Japan. Int J Environ Res. Public Health, 13(781).