A Naturopathic Approach to the Winter Blues

The onset of winter can be a challenging time for many of us living in Canada. The long days of summer have passed and with it the sense of freedom that comes from spending ample time outdoors engaging in physical activities and socializing with friends.

The excitement of returning to school seems ages ago, as does watching the leaves turn color, pumpkin carving, and the excitement of Halloween.

SAD is a common mood disorder that affects individuals during the fall and winter months.

As the days get shorter, darker and colder we begin to suffer from bouts of cold and flu, spend less time outdoors and minimize our social contacts with others. We can easily find ourselves becoming overwhelmed with the stress of the holidays and we may slow down, even finding it difficult to wake up and get out of bed in the morning.

Our energy levels decline and along with it, our enthusiasm and productivity. We crave more sweets and starches and in short; become affected by what is called “the winter blues”.

While it is normal to feel better when the days are longer and there are ample hours of sunshine to lift our mood, some of us are vulnerable to experiencing seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD is a common mood disorder that affects individuals during the fall and winter months.

Those affected by SAD may feel down and fatigued, have difficulty concentrating, withdraw socially, over sleep, gain weight, have a lower libido, and experience decreased motivation, moodiness, nervousness, irritability, exhaustion, a sense of doom, despair, insomnia and have a desire to eat carbohydrate rich foods.

Prevalence

SAD prevalence increases with latitude and affects a large percentage of the population to varying degrees in Canada, Europe and the United States. Women tend to be more affected and those between the ages of 20-40 seem to be the most susceptible according to studies.

Understanding SAD-how light affects our mood

Light is required for us to feel healthy and happy and light deficiency disrupts our circadian rhythm (our body’s internal clock). Light affects our neurotransmitters – chemical messengers- that tell us when to wake and when to sleep, and when to eat. The lack of sunlight causes our brain to overproduce melatonin – our sleep hormone- causing lethargy and sleepiness. In fact, studies have shown that daytime melatonin levels are 2.5 times higher in individuals who suffer from SAD than those who don’t. Low levels of serotonin – our feel good hormone- also increases the likelihood of feeling angry, depressed, and anxious. Serotonin levels decline as melatonin increases affecting our mood, appetite, and wakefulness.

Treatment options

When natural light from our environment is unavailable to boost our levels of serotonin, light therapy can be a useful tool to combat SAD. Specially designed light boxes or light visors when used in the morning or during the day can help to maintain a normal circadian rhythm and balance serotonin and melatonin levels. In fact, light therapy, has been shown to be as effective as fluoxetine (paxil) for patients suffering from SAD, with fewer side effects and faster onset of action. It is recommended to begin with 15 min per day and gradually increase exposure to 30-45 min. Many individuals show an immediate benefit from the use of these devices however it may take several days or weeks for some to experience a prolonged or sustained anti-depressant effect.

Diet and exercise of course also play a very important role in mitigating the effects of SAD. Fun, non-restrictive exercise routines increase energy and can help to manage the weight fluctuations that occur during the winter months. And although most of us crave carbohydrates during the winter months – likely as a way to increase our feel good hormones – the imbalanced blood sugar that results from eating too many carbs can leave us feeling even more fatigued and can further exacerbate more cravings and depression.  Although any diet should be specifically tailored to the individual, a low glycemic index diet, with ample amounts of lean protein, is ideal for balancing blood sugar and maintaining lean body composition.

Additional remedies

The treatment of depression and seasonal affective disorder requires a multi-targeted approach.  The concentrations of the neurotransmitters serotonin and GABA in the brain are abnormally low in depression and anxiety, and thus the activation of these chemical messengers is the usual aim when treating these disorders with conventional anti-depressants (SSRI) and anxiolytic medications (benzodiazepines such as Ativan, Imovain, lorazepam).  Given the prevalence of seasonal affective disorder in northern latitudes and the various symptoms with which it may present, a multi-targeted approach using lifestyle, diet and Iight therapy. And various herbal remedies in synergy can help to safely and effectively control the complex symptoms of depressive disorders, without undesirable side-effects.

Valerian: Valerian exerts a feeling of calmness by affecting the GABA receptors in our brain. Using valerian during the winter months can help to improve feelings of anxiety and restlessness and can help with insomnia, a common complaint for those with depression or seasonal affective disorder

St Johns Wort: Traditionally used to treat depression, this herb improves mood by up-regulating serotonin receptors and improves the body’s response to stress.  St Johns Wort also has a calming effect on the nervous system and a review of the research on this herb concludes that it has a clear effect on mild and moderate depression with fewer side effects.

Passionflower: Studies have found that passionflower increases the uptake of serotonin when combined with St Johns Wort. Alone, it is useful for anxiety and depression, having outperformed Oxazepam (a benzodiazepine for anxiety) in a double blind placebo controlled trial.


Written by Suzanna Ivanovics BSc ND

Photo credit: Thanun Buranapong