Feeling Blue? 10 Ways to Beat the Winter Blues, Naturally

Image: Andrew Neel When the clocks turn back at the beginning of November and the days grow shorter & darker, even the best of us can get a little down.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as winter depression or winter blues, is a mood disorder in which people with normal mental health throughout most of the year experience depressive symptoms in the winter months, when the days are shorter, darker and rainier.

Experts say that SAD affects 40 million North Americans, and 75 – 80 percent of those afflicted are women.

SAD has also been observed in children, who may be irritable, have difficulty getting out of bed, and experience problems in school during the fall and winter months. The lack of sunlight can cause symptoms like fatigue, oversleeping, overeating, carbohydrate cravings, mild depression, irritation and loss of pleasure and interest in life.


The Biology of SAD

The specific cause of SAD remains unknown, but there are several theories proposed that might come into play.

One theory is the reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may disrupt the body’s internal “biological clock” (circadian rhythm), causing hormones, sleep and mood to be unbalanced.

Melatonin seems to be one of the players in this imbalance, as this hormone plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.

A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, might also play a role in SAD, as reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin levels leading to feelings of depression.

Whatever the cause of your SAD, there are many natural approaches that can provide considerable relief for suffers of the winter blues.


10 Natural Ways to Un-SAD Yourself


1. Light Up Your Life

Light therapy is one of the easiest, most non-invasive and natural ways to treat SAD. There are numerous research studies supporting the beneficial effects of light therapy for SAD.

Special light boxes which provide 10,000 lux are used to stimulate light exposure and are available online and at various stores. The daily goal is 30 to 60 minutes of direct facial exposure in the morning, as this has the added bonus of resetting the circadian rhythm and stopping daytime melatonin secretion. Performed in this way, light therapy has been found to be as effective as fluoxetine (Prozac) in relieving SAD.


2. Get Moving

Exercise increases the body’s production of endorphins - chemical substances that can relieve depression.

It can be tough to exercise in the winter, but find an exercise buddy to encourage daily movement and to help keep you motivated.

Join a gym, climb stairs, walk at a mall, swim at an indoor pool, or sign up for one of the many fitness programs offered by your local community centre.


3. Up Your Vitamin D

Research supports a connection between low vitamin D levels and SAD.

Vitamin D, actually a hormone, needs UVB sun exposure in order to be processed in the body. Most data supports daily doses of 2000 IU of vitamin D3.

Food sources include cold water, fatty fish like cod, salmon, sardines, herring and fortified cereals and milks (Milaneschi Y. et al. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2010).


4. Try 5HTP

A supplement called 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is the precursor to serotonin, our “happy hormone.” When taken orally, 5HTP helps increase serotonin levels in the brain, thus alleviating many of the symptoms of SAD (W.F. Byerley et al. Clin Psychopharmacol. 1987).


5. Balance Your Blood Sugar

Carbohydrate cravings and bingeing can aggravate feelings of depression by altering blood sugar levels.

Eat healthy protein sources such as organic free-range meats, nuts and seeds, eggs and legumes, and eat more frequently during the day (5 smaller meals instead of 3 larger ones).

Choose complex carbohydrates such as fruits, whole grains and vegetables instead of simple carbohydrates like white flours and refined sugars.


6. Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Fish oils (which contain very high levels of Omega-3s) have been shown to be deficient in people who suffer from SAD.

Omega-3s are important for all around brain function, inflammation, skin/hair/nails and heart health (J.R. Hibbeln and N. Salem. Am J Clin Nutr. 1995).


7. Mind your Bs and Seratonin Cues

B Vitamins are also effective in maintaining adequate serotonin levels. Be sure that the B-complex supplement contains all the essential B vitamins such as thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, B6, B12, folic acid and pantothenic acid (B5).


8. The Wort you Want

St. John’s Wort has been shown to have a positive effect on serotonin, dopamine and melatonin, thus improving symptoms of depression and SAD.

Although St. John’s wort extract is effective on its own, when combined with light therapy there seems to be an even more significant improvement in symptoms of SAD and depression.

NOTE: St. John’s Wort interacts with many medications so please seek the guidance of a licensed health care provider before taking this herb.


9. Adrenal Support

Everyone has 2 small glands that sit on top of each kidney called the adrenal glands. These important glands control everything from sleep, appetite, mood and the body’s ability to cope with stress.

SAD might be caused by an increased secretion of cortisol by the adrenal glands. Support the adrenal glands with adaptogens such as: Siberian ginseng, Rhodiola, Suma and Ashwagandha as well as B vitamins.


10. Make More Melatonin

Melatonin helps to maintain the body’s circadian rhythm. The body produces more melatonin when it is dark and decreases the production when it is light out.

Melatonin supplementation may relieve the symptoms of SAD because it increases brain melatonin levels, and suppresses cortisol secretion (H.S. Yu and R.J. Reiter eds. Melatonin Biosynthesis, Physiological Effects and Clinical Applications. 1993).

Take melatonin 30-45 minutes before bedtime.


The important thing you can do if you think you have SAD? Relax, slow down, and breathe!