by Cassie Irwin, ND
One in 6 Canadians experiences the winter blues. But did you know there’s a difference between the winter blues and Seasonal Affective Disorder?
By the end of this blog, you’ll know how to distinguish between the two conditions and which nutrition, lifestyle, and supplement strategies you can put in place to spark a light at the end of a wintery tunnel.
Why are Canadians so SAD?
Sun worshippers in latitudes far from the equator know the toll that the low light of winter can take on mood and energy. About 1 in 6 Canadians experience fatigue and the blahs we commonly call the “winter blues,” a mild subsyndrome of Seasonal Affective Disorder (S-SAD). This is less severe and more manageable than true Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Winter Blues symptoms:
- Changes in appetite
- Feeling sad
Between 2 and 6% of the Canadian population meet the criteria for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). This is a true depressive disorder that lasts at least two weeks and recurs in a seasonal pattern. While it can sometimes be triggered in the spring and summer, it is most common during the fall and winter.
Is it the Winter Blues or is it SAD?
Unlike the winter blues (S-SAD), SAD can interfere with daily functioning and may require antidepressant treatment and counselling. Those most at risk of SAD are youths, women, those who live farther from the equator and have family histories of depression, bipolar disorder or SAD.
Since decreased exposure to the sun is an important contributor to SAD, those who work night shifts are at particularly high risk of developing the condition.
Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms:
Winter Blues symptoms, plus:
- Feeling depressed
- Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
- Changes in appetite, particularly carbohydrate and sugar cravings
- Changes in sleep (oversleeping is common)
- Changes in weight
- Agitation and irritability
The Body on SAD
People with SAD have difficulty regulating serotonin, a neurotransmitter and hormone responsible, in part, for healthy mood balance.
They may also have higher-than-average levels of melatonin. Melatonin is the sleep hormone that’s released by the pineal gland when the sun goes down. But when winter days are short, this increases melatonin production and may contribute to the oversleeping and lethargy that we see in those with SAD.
And with weaker sunlight during the winter months, people with SAD aren’t able to produce as much vitamin D through the skin. Vitamin D is theorized to impact serotonin activity, as it’s been shown that insufficiency of Vitamin D is associated with clinically significant depressive symptoms.
People with dark skin may also have reduced vitamin D production and a higher risk of deficiency.
People with SAD may also have subtle decreases in thyroid function; conversely, hypothyroidism can mask some symptoms of SAD.
It’s important to check in with your healthcare provider to identify the underlying causes of your symptoms to ensure you’re getting the help you need.
Conditions that May Mimic S-SAD / SAD
- Thyroid dysfunction
- Adrenal dysfunction / HPA-axis dysfunction
- Cortisol Awakening Response abnormalities
- Metabolism Dysfunction
Ask your Naturopathic Doctor to help identify the underlying cause of your mood and energy symptoms.
Light the Way
While it’s beneficial to go outside every day in the winter for fresh air and movement, we don’t reap the full benefits of the sun as we do in the summer. When it comes to vitamin D production and circadian rhythm syncing (the 24-hour sleep-wake cycle), the dim winter sunlight is not very effective. During the winter months of November through February, those living about 33 degrees north of the equator are not able to synthesize Vitamin D.
To put it into a North American context, this latitude is anywhere above Louisiana. Because of these geographic constraints, artificial light boxes may be your best bet for light therapy in the winter.
Lightboxes, which emit full spectrum cool light while filtering out UV rays, are about 20 times as great as ordinary indoor lighting. Sitting in front of a lightbox for 20-60 minutes every morning from fall to winter can improve both the winter blues and SAD. In a Canadian study comparing the effectiveness of the antidepressant fluoxetine and light therapy in SAD, both treatments were found to be equally effective, with fluoxetine being more cost-effective while light therapy boasting fewer side effects.
Not all light sources contribute to health, though. The light emitted from tablets, phones and computers is heavy in blue light, which can impact the function of the pineal gland, the sleepy hormone melatonin, and the circadian rhythm, all of which are involved in SAD. Invest in a good quality pair of blue-light-blocking glasses, or use the nighttime settings on your screens throughout the day to ensure your circadian rhythm is on track.
Mind-Body Techniques to Help Manage SAD
- Tai Chi
- Progressive relaxation
- Deep breathing
- Art, music, journaling or other creative pursuits
While cookies, chips and chocolate may give you a momentary mood-boost, these treats feed a vicious cycle of carbohydrate cravings, blood sugar crashes, fatigue, insomnia and weight gain – all of which we see in SAD. Be sure to pair complex carbohydrates with healthy fats and ample protein to contribute to stable blood sugar and build happy hormones.
Since those with SAD often have low serotonin, (which could be the cause of ransacking the snack cupboard!) be sure to incorporate lots of foods rich in the precursors and cofactors involved in serotonin production.
Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin and is found in turkey, chicken, eggs, cheese, tofu, salmon and nuts and cheese. The B vitamins are involved in the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin and can be found in poultry, red meat, leafy greens, and fish. A moderate intake of fish and omega 3 fatty acids is associated with lower depression risk.
Dietary sources of vitamin D are mostly limited to salmon, tuna, cod liver oil, eggs, and fortified dairy products. This is a case wherein it’s best to supplement to achieve vitamin D adequacy throughout winter.
Supplementing for Winter Blues
- Vitamin D
- B complex
- 5-HTP – a precursor to serotonin
- Greens powder
- Protein powder
- Cod liver oil, fish oil, or plant-based omega 3
Make sure you’re absorbing the food and supplements you’re feeding your body by taking digestive enzymes. Speak with your natural health practitioner about getting your gut health in check so your mental health can follow suit.
Dr. Cassie Irwin, ND
Naturopathic Contributor, The Peanut Mill Natural Foods
Dr. Cassie Irwin, ND helps high-performing women quell anxiety, exhaustion, and overwhelm so they can wield their superpowers while feeling calm, productive, and aligned. Dr. Cassie consults virtually and in her Niagara Falls practice. www.drcassieirwin.com; @drcassieirwin