Navigating Mental Health in the Winter, and 'SAD'

Navigating Mental Health in the Winter, and 'SAD'

This time of year can be really difficult for most folks: the short days and colder weather can do a number on our mood and feelings of wellbeing. This low mood in Winter months can be referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or, SAD. SAD is seen as a combination of low motivation, fatigue, low/negative feelings of self, brain fog and lack of concentration.

Even if you are not experiencing all of the traditional symptoms of SAD, here are some ways to help rebalance your mental health in the Winter:

1) Morning Light Exposure
Exposing yourself to morning light is important to regulate your circadian rhythm and to up-regulate proper hormone production that controls the sleep/wake center of the brain. It also helps balance the rise and fall of the stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol should increase in the morning to energize you for the day and come down in the evening to prepare you for sleep. Screens and artificial light skew this natural rhythm, and light in the morning helps reset these innate bodily rhythms.

2) Exercise 30 mins daily
Daily exercise is a well-known mood-booster, but we often forget to implement it in Winter months when our emotional wellbeing needs it the most. The Journal of the American Medical Association says “significant mental health benefits come from being physically active, even at levels below the public health recommendations.” Any increase in physical activity will improve mental health. In my opinion the best way to implement daily exercise is to have an accountability buddy -- someone you can exercise with who can hold you accountable and celebrate your successes!

3) Vitamin D3
Low levels of "super vitamin" D3 can be linked to feelings of low mood and SAD. This vitamin is up-regulated by sun and light exposure, which poses a challenge for Canadians in Winter months. Vitamin D3 levels can be measured in the blood and, in order to dose accordingly, one's blood should first be checked. Common practice is to use 1000-4000IU per day to address a deficiency.

4) 5-HTP
5-HTP is an amino acid and chemical precursor to Serotonin. It can be used to increase Serotonin, the neurotransmitter that brings feelings of contentment. I frequently use this in practice for patients with low mood and often prescribe it during the Winter months to help the brain restabilize until the warmer, sunnier months return. Serotonin is the precursor to Melatonin, our sleep hormone, so it also has beneficial effects on sleep and regulating our circadian rhythms.

The implementation of all four of these recommendations can really help lif your mood in the Winter months, but if you are struggling please seek professional help with a mental health professional, MD or Naturopath. Winter can be beautiful in Ontario, so I hope these poiners can help encourage maximum enjoyment this Winter!

Be well,
Dr. Kate Hunter, ND