Many years ago I started to notice a pattern in my practice – sometime in October a shift would occur in my patients. Many of the same complaints started to come through my door – fatigue, lack of motivation, sluggishness and general sadness. I came to recognize these symptoms as part of a bigger picture of SAD (Seasonal Affective disorder). In fact, most Canadian’s will experience some level of ‘winter blues’ or ‘SAD’ at some point during the winter months!
There’s a good explanation for these changes. The days get shorter and darker, and we become less active, spending more time indoors. With the darkness, we produce higher amounts of ‘melatonin’, which is a hormone that makes us feel drowsy and sleepy. With the seasonal changes our diets often shift as well – we reach for the warming comfort foods, which can also contribute to an expanding waistline AND contribute further to our lack of energy and general state of hibernation.
As Canadian’s we are all susceptible to these symptoms – just consider the fact that we spend potentially a full 6 months in the cold darkness of winter! The good news is that there are a few effective strategies that you can incorporate to help yourself feel better both physically and mentally.
Know your vitamin D levels
I often advise patients to check their vitamin D levels (a simple blood test) in the Fall to see what they absorbed over the summer, and to determine their appropriate dosing over the Winter months. People are often shocked to see that they are low or deficient despite having been ‘out in the sun’ all summer long. A variety of factors such as sunscreen use, time spent outdoors, activity level and skin exposure can determine how much vitamin D an individual actually absorbs.
Vitamin D’s Role As one of the most important vitamins for us in the winter, vitamin D supports a variety of functions – healthy immunity, brain and nervous system; mood regulation; energy and motivation; healthy bones and teeth; lung function and cardiovascular health.
Many of the roles of vitamin D plays are not always immediately obvious to us, however I find that supplementing my patients with vitamin D makes a huge difference on their energy levels, mood and motivation in the winter months, and they usually report this difference by the next visit!
Food Sources It’s difficult to get all you need from food alone when it comes to vitamin D, however foods such as salmon, sardines, maitake mushrooms, tuna, herring, fortified dairy products and eggs can top you up! Best source? Good ol’ Cod Liver oil at 400 IU per teaspoon!
Brighten things up!
Many of the symptoms of SAD are due to the increase amount we spend in darkness over the winter months. Research supports the use of ‘light therapy’ to help us feel better and happier. Waking up and spending 20-30 minutes in front of a lightbox can become part of your daily routine. Select a light source that provides you with 10,000 LUX of light. Some people eat their breakfast in front of this light, or use it while answering their morning emails.
Get Outdoors! On Sunny days try to get outside into natural light for at least 30 min. Natural light is far more intense than the lighting most of us are exposed to indoors. Enjoy an outdoor activity with the family or take a quick morning walk whenever possible.
Many people seem to be active ‘seasonally’ – they golf, do their gardening, ride their bikes and take walks all summer long. Once the weather gets cold and many of these activities are no longer available, they spend most of their time indoors and find themselves living a sedentary lifestyle.
We all know the benefits of exercise at this point, but did you know the new Physical Activity Guidelines by Health Canada for people ages 18-64 are 150 minutes per week of moderate to intense exercise?
Exercise is good for any type of depression, with dozens of studies supporting the use of exercise to help manage many of the symptoms. Decide on what works best for you, so that you’re more likely to do it. You don’t have to join a gym if that’s not your cup of tea. You can exercise at home for 20-30 min. by following a workout video on YouTube or your favorite DVD (most of these can be done in your bedroom or living room). A basic set of free-weights or kettlebells can give you a full body workout with the benefit of ‘resistance’, which also strengthens your bones. Some people love to join a class to stay motivated – meet up with a friend if that helps you stay accountable!
Take it up a notch! Why not combine exercise with getting outdoors to get the benefits of both! Spend time with the family sledding, go skiing on the weekend, take up skate-skiing (for a high intensity workout) or start your day with a brisk morning walk.
Need a quick Brain-Boost to start your day?
Here’s a tasty Smoothie Bowl recipe that you can enjoy as a breakfast or as a mid-day snack. The MCT oil provides your brain with medium chain fatty acids that can convert into fuel quickly and efficiently. The avocado provides healthy fats and fiber to give you consistent energy without the crashes that simple carbohydrates create. Blueberries are full of an antioxidant called anthocyanin, which boosts brain function. And it’s no coincidence that walnuts look like mini-brains – it’s nature way of providing us with ‘brain-food’. Full of DHA (an omega-3 fatty acid), they help boost our mood and improve cognition!
Brain-Boosting Smoothie Bowl
1 tbsp MCT Oil (or coconut oil)
1 scoop vanilla protein powder
½ cup blueberries (reserve a few for topping)
6 walnuts (reserve a few for topping)
1 cup water OR almond milk
Optional: handful of spinach
Add all ingredients into your blender (except the reserved toppings) and blend until a smooth texture is reached. Pour into a bowl and top with your choice of smoothie boosters!
Dr. Anna Falkowski is a Naturopathic Doctor, Wellness Educator & Clinic Director at Vitality for Life Health Center in Barrie, Ontario with a specialty in Women’s Health, Weight-loss and Family Medicine. She is a healthy living advocate passionate about teaching classes and creating online programs for ‘Mom on the Glow’, her wellness blueprint for busy Moms. For more information you can visit www.vitalityforlife.ca or www.MomOnTheGlow.com