Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D) & The Winter Blues. A Holistic Approach.
Winter’s shorter, dark days, and cold weather affects many of us living in the Northern Hemisphere to some degree. While some people experience a slight dip in mood and energy, aka the ‘winter blues’, others endure a more severe condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder, or S.A.D, as it is appropriately abbreviated to. Officially defined as, ‘a recurring depression with seasonal onset and remission’, SAD has been diagnosed in an estimated 10% of Canadians, 75% of whom are young women. The major symptoms of SAD include:
– Change in mood / feeling depressed, agitated or restless
– Disrupted sleep patterns / early rising
– Low energy & lack of motivation / sluggish
– Change in appetite & food cravings for carbs/sugars
While little research has been done on SAD, one small-scale study was recently carried out by the Copenhagen University Hospital. The researchers studied the brain scans of SAD sufferers, along with a control group of individuals who did not experience SAD symptoms. They discovered that the SAD subjects had higher SERT (serotonin transmitter) levels during the darker months, compared to the control group. Serotonin, the ‘feel good’ hormone, affects our mood, energy, appetite, digestion, sleep, concentration and memory. SERT works by carrying serotonin into the nerve cells where it becomes inactive, suppressing the hormone. In other words, the higher the SERT activity, the lower the serotonin activity. In fact, the SAD sufferers showed a 5% increase in SERT activity from summer to winter, while the control group experience no change from season to season. Given that sunlight naturally and directly affects serotonin production by keeping SERT levels low, the lack of sunlight that occurs during the fall/winter, may cause the drop in serotonin amongst those who experience SAD (2, 1).
By adopting the following healthy habits, one can actively prevent the ‘winter blues’ and reduce the symptoms of SAD. Here are my top six tips for achieving optimal health in the winter:
1. Eat a balanced, whole-foods plant-based diet: Enjoy mostly cooked and raw vegetables (mostly non-starchy), legumes (beans/lentils/peas), pseudo-grains (buckwheat/farro/quinoa/oats), some organic soy (tempeh/edamame/tofu), and healthy fats from nuts & seeds (especially flax/hemp and walnuts that are rich in Omega 3s.
– Aim to avoid processed/refined sugar and carbs, which perpetuate the craving for these foods during the winter. The more sugar you eat, the more sugar you crave.
2. Take Vitamin D daily (1000-2000 IU): All essential vitamins can be obtained in sufficient quantities through a healthy diet with the exception of vitamin D, which our bodies produces from exposure to the sun. In the spring/summer, we can get our daily dose of ‘D’ from spending 15 minutes in the sun. However, research shows that it is nearly impossible to get sufficient vitamin D during the darker winter months, when our skin is covered up and the sun’s rays are weak. In fact, about 32% of Canadians are deficient in Vitamin D, according to Statistics Canada. (Learn more in my article HERE)
– Vitamin D affects our hormone levels, including the feel good hormone serotonin! This fat-soluble vitamin is also directly connected to our immune system, so taking a vitamin D supplement daily is important in keeping both mentally and physically healthy.
– I recommend the supplement brands AOR or Metagenics.
3. Get outside! Schedule time outdoors, to breath fresh air and taking in as much natural sunlight as possible. Spending time in nature or simply walking to/from work or while running errands, will boost your mood and level of overall motivation!
4. Exercise Daily: Incorporate physical activity into your weekly routine, scheduling at least 3 days a week of 30-60 minutes of cardio. Take a yoga class, go for a run, hit the gym, or play an indoor/outdoor sport – whatever gets your heart rate up and allows natural endorphins to be released!
5. Prioritize Social Time: Having the winter blues or SAD can be isolating. Counter the tendency to totally hibernate by making time for social gatherings. Try to plan activities that don’t involve alcohol, which can perpetuate the symptoms of seasonal depression. I recommend combining tip 4 and 5 by arranging to doing physical activities with your friends and family!
6. Use Light Therapy: When the sun goes down in the late afternoon, make this your cue to turn on all the lights in the room you’re in. Even this synthetic light can help you feel more alert and motivated. One can also purchase a high voltage SAD lamp, which can only help. NOTE: The lamp I use is by a company called Nature Bright, which you can purchase online HERE.
Mood Boosting Foods
Food IS medicine and there are a wide range of whole plant based foods that support healthy hormone/mood balance. Tryptophan is an amino acid (protein) used by the body to help make serotonin, and can be found in the following foods:
– Nuts and seeds. Specifically un-roasted peanuts and natural butter, pumpkin seeds/pumpkin seed butter, and sesame seeds/tahini.
– Organic GMO-free soybeans. It is important to avoid processed un-organic soy from whole sources such as organic tempeh, tofu, edamame, dried soybeans and soybean sprouts.
– Legumes (beans/lentils/peas) and pseudo-grains (buckwheat, quinoa, oats, farro) are rich in complex carbohydrates and plant-based protein, which support optimal, sustained energy. These along with all other complex carbs are sources of B Vitamins, which also support hormone/mood balance.
– Lightly cooked green leafy veggies (spinach, kale, arugula, turnip greens, beet greens, swiss chard, collard greens). These greens are rich in vitamin C and magnesium, nutrients that are involved in the conversion of tryptophan and tyrosine into serotonin and dopamine. Spinach, turnip greens and watercress are specifically high in tryptophan! Gently/quickly sautéing or wilting greens allows the nutrients (iron, calcium etc.) to become more bioavailability. Cooking your greens with a little olive oil further improves the absorption of these essential nutrients in the body.
– Mushrooms are the only natural plant-based source of Vitamin D. Cultivated mushrooms contain a plant sterol called ergosterol, which is the precursor of Vitamin D². In fresh mushrooms, ergosterol is stimulated to convert to Vitamin D² by ultraviolet light, either from sunlight or artificial lights. Portobello mushrooms grown with exposure to UV light, Shiitake (dried), Maitake and Chanterelles have the highest levels of Vitamin D (4).
– Fermented foods help support the good bacteria or ‘friendly flora’ in our gut. The gut is one of the first indicators of health. In fact, most of the body’s serotonin is produced in the gut, not the brain. Consequently, the gut and the brain are intrinsically linked. Supporting your gut with plenty of good bacteria helps to boost immunity, which is important during the ‘cold season’. Enjoy the following fermented foods with probiotic affects: sauerkraut, kimchi, organic tempeh and miso.
– Nuts & seeds. Flax, hemp, chia seeds and walnuts are great sources of mood-boosting, anti-inflammatory essential Omega-3s. These healthy fats help balance hormones levels, energy, brain function and mental clarity. Cashews, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, and peanuts are all especially rich in tryptophan. Almonds are high in zinc and iron, mood/hormone balancing and immune supporting nutrients.
1. University of Copenhagen. Brenda McMahon, MD. Impaired inhibition of emotional faces in individuals with seasonal affective disorder. http://www.ecnp-congress.eu/presentationpdfs/7/P.1.i.037.pdf” href=
2. Medscape Medical News. “Seasonal Fluctuations in Serotonin Responsible for SAD?”. Deborah Brauser. 2014. http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/834066
3. Science Daily. Biochemical cause of seasonal depression (SAD) confirmed by researchers. 2014. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/10/141020212412.htm
4. Mushrooms can provide as much vitamin D as supplements. Boston University Medical Center. 2013. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/04/130422132801.htm
5. Vitamin D from Mushrooms, Sun, or Supplements? Dr. Michael Greger M.D. 2013. http://nutritionfacts.org/2013/08/01/vitamin-d-from-mushrooms-sun-or-supplements/” href=
6.Tryptophan. Medlineplus. National Institutes of HealthNational Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002332.htm