The Cure For The Winter Blues
If you are like me and millions of other people around the world in latitudes far from the equator, you feel less energetic in the colder darker months. It is estimated that up to 7% of people experience the extreme version of the winter blues called seasonal affective disorder or SAD for short. SAD is more prevalent at higher latitudes, and the prevalence varies across ethnic groups. (1) It is possible that up to 40% of the population can experience some form of seasonality which can worsen with age. (2)
Activity and rest, wake and sleep, occur in precise 24 hour cycles that have evolved as an adaptation to the solar cycle of light and dark. The term circadian rhythm is used to describe the daily cycles we experience like hunger and sleep. (3) Seasonal changes in mood are linked to our built-in biological clocks. The area of the brain associated with our innate clock is the suprachiasmatic nucleus or SCN. As the seasons change, the periods of night and day vary, especially as you get farther away from the equator. In many animals, seasonal changes can bring on huge behavioral swings such as extreme weight gain and hibernation. Symptoms of SAD resemble some of these seasonal changes that occur in other mammals. The symptoms can include weight gain, increased sleep and decreased activity. (4) Some people with SAD feel less happy or even depressed. These seasonal changes are mediated by many neurotransmitters and hormones and are quite complex and only slightly understood. Luckily, there is something we can do to combat these mostly unwanted symptoms. Dietary changes, extra light and exercises can really help; read on.
Numerous findings indicate lower levels in brain serotonin in patients with SAD. (5) The rate of production of serotonin by the brain has been directly related to the prevailing duration and strength of bright sunlight and rises rapidly with increased brightness. (6) It is not surprising that numerous studies have demonstrated that the use of light therapy alleviates the symptoms of SAD. (7, 8, 9) Adding artificial light in the winter helps keep your circadian rhythms on track and boosts your serotonin. Today, light therapy lamps are widely available on the market. It is best to use them within the first hour of waking up in the morning for about a half hour with your eyes open but not staring at the light.
Sleep cycles are generally longer in winter due to the longer nights. 80% of people with SAD sleep more. This condition is called hypersomnia. I definitely sleep longer in winter and It is no cause for concern as long as it is not longer than 9 to 10 hours, as this could be an indication of serious issues like sleep apnea.(10) Some people just don’t sleep well throughout the year, and winter can sometimes worsen sleep. 20% of people with SAD sleep less. I recommend strict sleep hygiene as one of the pillars of health no matter what time of year it is. If you find you can sleep OK in the warmer months, but can’t sleep as well in winter, you are not alone. If you have a job where you get up before six AM and work until five PM, you will get no exposure to the sun and your circadian rhythm can become quite disordered. Light therapy lamps are a huge help to keep your sleep/wake cycles normalized. The bright light exposure can mimic daylight and keep you on track. It is perfectly OK to use one all day while you work if you feel you need to. It is not recommended to expose yourself to bright light later in the day as this can easily back fire. You can read more about how to sleep like a pro in my previous post linked below.
Vitamin D is manufactured in our bodies when we are exposed to bright sunlight. As expected, our ability to make our own vitamin D diminishes in the winter. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is prevalent when vitamin D stores are low. (11) Studies have suggested that low levels of vitamin D are associated with poor mood in general. There are a number of trials that have suggested a role for Vitamin D in the supplementary treatment of depression. (12) I don’t suggest artificial UV light (tanning beds) as a cure due to evidence that it may lead to higher rates of cancer. I do recommend getting vitamin D from your diet. Whole food sources like salmon or liver are best. You don’t have to worry about overdosing with food, unlike supplements. If you must supplement, you can use extra virgin cod liver oil. I recommend a teaspoon each day, but you must get your levels checked professionally, as high levels of vitamin D can be harmful. Read my post on vitamin D here.
Weight gain is also part of seasonal bodily changes and should be welcomed as long as it is not extreme and you rid yourself of it in the spring and summer. I personnaly can see a change in my body composition in the colder months and I don’t fret about it. The paleo diet leads to spontaneous calorie restriction and of course I recommend you stick to something close to it. I personally eat a higher fat lower carb version in the winter in order to stay relatively lean.
Due to the cold and darkness associated with winter, we usually get much less exercise. Sedentary lifestyles are also associated with lower levels of serotonin, anxiety, depression, and weight gain. An excellent strategy to raise brain serotonin is exercise. This can seem difficult in the winter if you are used to exercising outdoors and don’t like frigid weather. Exercising in your own home can be easy and cheap. Jumpropes are super affordable. I have put requests out on social media for unwanted and unused treadmills twice recently and gotten them within an hour for free! I bought a cheap shelf and watch videos on an old laptop to pass the time while I am on the treadmill. I walk my dogs in the house listening to podcasts. Burpees in the bedroom work too. These are just a few suggestions, there are many ways you can get moving indoors when the snow is piled up outside. If you don’t mind the cold and snow, snowshoes are an inexpensive way to exercise.
This post is not meant to treat or diagnose true SAD, which can be quite debilitating. If you suspect you have it, please see your health practitioner as soon as you can.