The Winter Blues:  Seasonal Affective Disorder



It’s February.  One of the dreariest months of the year and the month when most people really struggle with the winter blues. The medical term for the winter blues is Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD.

Signs and symptoms of SAD include:

  • Low energy
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Sleeping problems or the tendency to oversleep
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Depression or low mood
  • Irritability, mood swings
  • Loss of interest in sex
  • Loss of interest in social interactions with friends and family

The Causes SAD

There is no consensus on what causes SAD but there are a few theories:

Reduced Serotonin Levels

It is thought that the reduced daylight in winter reduces our serotonin levels (the “feel good” serotonin) which affects our mood.  Serotonin plays an important factor in regulating our mood, appetite, sleep and brain function.

Increased Melatonin Levels

The reduced light also increases melatonin.  Melatonin is a hormone that is secreted by the pineal gland in response to a lack of light.  It makes us sleepy, reducing our energy levels and lowering our mood.  In some cases, the increase in melatonin can disrupt our normal circadian rhythm (the internal alarm clock that regulates sleep/wake cycles).

Reduced Vitamin D

Our bodies make vitamin D in response to natural daylight but in the winter, the UV index is too low for our bodies to make vitamin D.  This can result in a deficiency that can contribute to the signs and symptoms of SAD.  Many North Americans have less than optimal levels of Vitamin D.

Treatments for SAD

There are natural ways that you can reduce the symptoms of SAD.

Light Therapy:  make sure you get outside when it’s bright out and expose yourself to natural daylight.  You can also buy a “lightbox”, a natural spectrum light, and use that to increase your exposure to light.  Light therapy has been shown to reduce melatonin levels.  A lightbox should be used for 30 minutes a day.  You can use this time to read, work or do other tasks but your eyes must be open.  A dawn simulator has also been shown to help.  It is used as an alarm clock and allows the body to wake up in response to a gradually increasing light over 30-60 minutes.

Diet and Supplements:  Eat a diet high in the amino acid tryptophan.  Tryptophan is the building block for serotonin and is found in eggs, nuts, seeds, tofu, salmon and turkey.  Also, increasing protein and good fats will help regulate insulin levels and mitigate carbohydrate cravings and weight gain.

There are also supplements that can help increase serotonin levels naturally: 5-HTP and SAMe can increase your serotonin levels.  You might also consider a Vitamin D supplement, especially if you have darker skin.  Almost everyone in North America can benefit from a Vitamin D supplement in the winter however any supplements or vitamins should only be taken under the guidance of a healthcare practitioner.

Exercise:  Vigorous exercise for 30 minutes 3 times a week has been shown to reduce SAD. Want to increase the positive effects?  Exercise outside in the daylight or under bright lights!  Consider a walk at lunch time when you can maximize your exposure to daylight.  Exercise increases serotonin levels and has been shown to improve mood and energy.

Mindfulness:  practicing mindfulness can help increase serotonin levels and reduce signs of depression. Meditation is one way to practice mindfulness and there are several apps available that can introduce you to meditation if you are new to it – consider Headpace or Muse as some options.  Another way to practice mindfulness is through gratitude.  You can practice gratitude simply by incorporating a few minutes in your day where you reflect on things that you are thankful for and that make you happy.  The key is to be consistent so take a few minutes when waking up, while drinking your coffee or before going to bed to reflect on what makes you happy and feel positive.

The winter months can be very trying for those that struggle to maintain a cheerful disposition, but with a few simple adjustments, you can support your mood and feel better.  If natural solutions don’t work and you feel especially down, it’s important to speak to a specialist and get some additional help.