SAD, more than just the winter blues


Winter has begun to settle in and with it the onset and progression of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Although the dark days and cold weather do tend to have a mood-dampening effect, it is important to recognize when it is more than just the winter blues.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that has a cyclical pattern associated with the onset of fall and winter. People can experience the following symptoms:

  •  low mood (ie. feeling blue, sad, hopeless)
  •  having a loss of interest in things that once brought pleasure
  •  lack of appetite or overeating
  • sleep disturbances (i.e insomnia, hypersomnia)

Diagnosis of SAD is four times more likely in females than males, and it is more frequently diagnosed in those who live further from the equator.

The mechanism of action responsible for this condition is still not understood, but it has been found that those who experience it produce more melatonin. This plays a large role in the experience of fatigue and lethargy. There have also been studies to suggest disruption of serotonin, the neurotransmitter which plays a role in mood regulation.

My top recommendations for managing SAD are: 

1) Reach out! Seek help.

Ultimately this condition is a recognized form of depression. I encourage those who are struggling to consider reaching out to a health care practitioner or counselor. Don't be afraid to connect and confide in loved ones.

2) Light Therapy

Light therapy consists of exposure (~20-60 mins/daily) to light at wavelengths which promote vitamin D production. It has been proven to decrease the impact of SAD and improve mood and energy levels.

How to optimize the effect of the light box/light therapy:

  • It should be 10,000 lux
  • Full spectrum white light that filters UV light
  • Positioned at eye level or higher
  • Kept at an angle not positioned directly in your eyes
  • Exposure should be a minimum of 20 minutes or up to 60 minutes a day depending on your needs
  • CONSISTENCY. As with any treatment, light therapy should be implemented daily to see maximal benefit.

3) Vitamin D

Vitamin D is involved in the synthesis of dopamine and serotonin which play an important role in mood regulation. Vitamin D deficiency is common among Canadians based on the nature of our climate--decreased exposure to sunlight. Supplementation of vitamin D is important throughout the fall and winter. Talk to your primary healthcare provider to establish the adequate dose for you. For those who are currently supplementing it is important to consume vitamin d with a meal or fat source as it is a fat-soluble vitamin and this will increase the absorption.

4) Exercise

As difficult as it may seem to get going into an exercise routine, try to shift your perspective on what physical activity is for you. Re-evaluate the kind of exercise you need right now and find an activity you can commit to. If you find comfort and motivation in group classes, book them in advance to help keep you accountable. Recruit an exercise buddy to help keep one another motivated or try a new space or activity. Physical activity is not only protective for your health but it also has been shown to improve mood. It can be an opportunity for social interaction and connection, or an opportunity to spend some time to yourself which can help nourish your body and mind.

5) Diet & Supplementation

Tryptophan is an amino acid that acts as a precursor to serotonin production. By consuming more tryptophan through our diet, we provide nutrients specific to helping produce more serotonin. Foods that contain a high amount of tryptophan include pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, edamame, turkey, halibut, salmon, parmesan and cheddar cheese.

Omega 3 fatty acids play a role in mood regulation. Consuming three servings of cold water fish (salmon, halibut) weekly is suggested to meet your required needs for omega 3's. You can also find Omega 3's in chia seeds, hemp hearts, flaxseeds, walnuts, and almonds.

6) Implement a grounding activity

Find a nourishing or grounding activity and commit to implementing it daily. This is also a good opportunity to re-evaluate current activities or habits and determine if they continue to nourish and support your mood. 

As Canadians, it is important to be mindful of how the transition from season to season is impacting us. This condition can be pervasive and easily mistaken for winter blues. Many people affected by SAD often believe it is something they must silently suffer through. If you or a family member is suffering I encourage you to contact a healthcare practitioner to see what strategies you can implement to support yourself through this winter season.

In health,