Beating the Winter Blues

Do you ever experience the ‘winter blues’? At least 15% of us here in Canada will experience some degree of the winter blues, also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), in our lifetime. The effects of SAD can range from mild, transient symptoms, to devastating mood and quality of life effects. People with cancer have been found to be more likely to experience SAD compared to the general population, and while there are many factors that play into the development and severity of SAD, there are some factors we have control over and can change. Naturopathic medicine takes an integrative and preventative approach to SAD and one of the ways we do this is by looking at what we can control and how we can address the causes.  

So, what does SAD look like?

  • Mood change that follows a seasonal pattern
  • Feelings of sadness or being down
  • Loss of interest in things that normally interest us
  • Changes in sleep; oversleeping or insomnia
  • Changes in appetite; often increased desire for sweets or pleasurable foods
  • Loss of energy; energy doesn’t match level of rest
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or failure
  • Becoming overly slow and dull; or conversely becoming fidgety and pacing around

Take these steps to help keep your mood and motivation steady this winter:

  1. Get some sun: SAD is most common in areas that don’t get a lot of sun exposure and we are more likely to experience SAD in the winter months when days are shorter (less than 12 hours of sunshine a day). There is a connection between low vitamin D levels and SAD – we need time out in the sun to be able to make this vitamin. Exposure to sunlight also increases serotonin levels (our happy hormone), which in turn increases our night-time melatonin and sleep quality.
    • What can you do:
      • Schedule daily sunshine time: Aim for at least 30 minutes of sunshine a day.
      • Ask your Naturopathic Doctor about sunlamps: there is a wealth of research into light therapy, with some researchers finding a significant improvement in SAD symptoms in up to 70% of patients.
      • Consider supplementing with vitamin D in the winter: If you’re struggling to get enough sunlight, consult a Naturopathic Doctor about type and dose of vitamin D you should be taking.
  2. Exercise – Move whatever way you can! Exercise is critical for the healthy functioning of our bodies. Just as we evolved around sunlight, we also evolved as active beings! Plenty of research has been conducted not only on the impacts of exercise, but also on different types. It doesn’t have to be lifting weights at the gym, there are lots of ways we can exercise at home and still get the benefits, without any equipment at all.
    • What can you do?
      • Start walking: Try going for a 30-minute walk twice a week, and then increase that by one additional walk per week until you are going for a walk 5x a week. This will earn you 150 minutes of physical activity, which has been studied in terms of its beneficial impact on mental health and also for its anti-cancer benefits .
      • Pick up the pace with a brisk walk: Don’t have 30 minutes 5x a week? Not a problem, you can play around with the intensity of your walk. Try brisk walking; this should be fast enough to get your heart rate up while still being able to hold a conversation.
      • Trouble holding yourself accountable? Try challenging a house-member, neighbour, or friend to go for daily walks – support each other and share your goals with others to help hold you accountable.
      • Walking just isn’t your thing? Try yoga: Yoga has also been studied in the context of depression and found to be effective. You don’t have to be a seasoned yogi to reap the benefits as there are many different types. If you find the rate or intensity of yoga too much, try “relaxing” or “yin” yoga.
      • You don’t need to spend money on classes or a gym membership to do yoga. We have two weekly online, no-cost yoga classes designed for people with cancer, hosted by the CCNM Integrative Cancer Centre. Learn more and register here.
  3. Diet – Give your body the best fuel: When you are struggling with SAD, it’s easy to fall into bad eating habits. While we might crave a bag of chips or chocolate, those can often leave us feeling worse once we come down from the sugar high. Serotonin, our happy hormone, increases with exposure to sunlight but up to 90% of our serotonin is actually produced in our gut. Most processed foods are packed full of artificial flavours, colours, and chemicals that have been shown to disrupt healthy hormone functioning, including serotonin.
    • What can you do?
      • Stock up on healthy snacks: Instead of chips and candies, buy some fresh fruit, packed with nutrients, to keep around the house. One large orange, for example, has over 100% of our daily required vitamin C, which plays a role in creating both serotonin and dopamine; hormones that improve our mood and trigger the reward centre of our brain.
      • Try the Mediterranean diet: This diet tops the charts when it comes to improving mood and other symptoms of depression. In terms of cancer, this is the most well-studied diet showing anti-cancer effects. Rather than focusing on calorie counting, this diet promotes eating whole foods with an emphasis on healthy fats and vegetables and avoiding processed foods and added sugars.

Author: Jordan Kerner, CCNM Integrative Cancer Centre Intern

References:

APA, 2020. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), American Psychiatric Association. Retrieved from: https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/depression/seasonal-affective-disorder

CMHA, 2013. Seasonal affective disorder, Canadian Mental Health Association. Retrieved from: https://cmha.bc.ca/documents/seasonal-affective-disorder-2/

Integrative Cancer Centre, 2018. Mediterranean diet, Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine. Retrieved from: https://ccnmicc.ca/sites/default/files/MediterraneanDiethandout2018.pdf

MDAO, 2020. Seasonal affective disorder, Mood Disorders Association of Ontario. Retrieved from: https://mooddisorders.ca/faq/seasonal-affective-disorder-sad

Meredith ME, May JM. Regulation of embryonic neurotransmitter and tyrosine hydroxylase protein levels by ascorbic acid. Brain Res. 2013;1539:7-14. doi:10.1016/j.brainres.2013.09.040

MyFoodDate, 2020. Naval oranges nutrition facts. Retrieved from: https://tools.myfooddata.com/nutrition-facts/169917/wt1

Piedmont Healthcare, 2020. Tips to combat seasonal affective disorder in cancer survivors. Retrieved from: https://www.piedmont.org/living-better/tips-to-combat-seasonal-affective-disorder-for-cancer-survivors

Prathikanti, S., Rivera, R., Cochran, A., Tungol, J. G., Fayazmanesh, N., & Weinmann, E. (2017). Treating major depression with yoga: A prospective, randomized, controlled pilot trial. PloS one, 12(3), e0173869. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0173869

Tri-city Medical Center, 2018.  5 ways the sun impacts your physical and mental health. Retrieved from: https://www.tricitymed.org/2018/08/5-ways-the-sun-impacts-your-mental-and-physical-health/

711Buzz, 2016. SAD- Season affective disorder-are you having the winter blues? Retrieved from: http://711buzz.com/s-a-d-seasonal-affective-disorder-are-you-having-the-winter-blues/