It’s autumn here in New Zealand and we have just hit daylight savings. Although I LOVE winter and everything that comes with it (like big cosy jackets and beanies and boots!) I’ve had a few conversations with friends recently who are dreading the fact that winter is coming (but on that note...how excited are you for Game of Thrones?!!).
I've always thought that people who suffered from the “winter blues” were just people who really loved the outdoors; you know, those proper summer girls who love being at the beach all day or socialising and having BBQs every night. I have to admit, as an introvert who loves to be inside reading a lot of the time, I didn’t really get what the big deal was. Once I got chatting to a few people though, I realised that for them, the “winter blues” wasn’t actually as trivial as it sounds - and at the request of a few friends who go through this every year, I went into my research cave to discover how you can take charge of your SAD. Here’s why some people tend to feel sad or depressed during winter:
Less Sunshine = Less Vitamin D
We get most of our RDI (recommended daily intake) of Vitamin D directly from the sun, with only 5-10% coming from food sources (like oily fish and liver). In winter we need longer exposure to the sun in order to hit that RDI and we need it in the middle of the day when the sun is at its highest and strongest. Where are most of us in the middle of the day in winter? In an office, or indoors. Unfortunately, modern life has not been our friend when it comes to getting our adequate dose of Vitamin D! In fact, Dr. Libby’s research suggests that 1/3 of New Zealanders test below optimal for their levels of Vitamin D (and that's during the summer as well!)*
Why do I need it?
Every tissue in the body has vitamin D receptors, including the brain, heart, muscles, and immune system, which means vitamin D is needed at every level for the body to function. Vitamin D is also a hormone, and activates genes which regulate the immune system and release things like serotonin (the happy drug) that affect brain function and development.
Less light means more melatonin
Melatonin is a substance that your brain creates when it’s dark to help you sleep, but too much melatonin can make you feel sluggish and want to sleep more. This can also lead to brain fog and lethargy which then often results in craving carbohydrates and food that make you feel more sluggish and sleepy! So it can become a vicious cycle of feeling tired and down and eating foods that are not nutritionally nourishing which also make you feel anxious or have low energy.
Not wanting to slow down
As always, whenever I research a health issue I always look at the physical, the mental and the spiritual cause of illnesses. In this case, feeling SAD over the darker months of the year can highlight resistance to going inward, slowing down and reflecting on what needs to be cleared from your life. Everything in nature has a season, and we all get that winter is important for the earth so that we can have new growth in spring. However, as humans of the western world, we don’t often like the phases of our life that force us to go inwards, to slow down or to clear what’s not working. We prefer to be productive rather than reflective, I think Dr. Christianne Northrup makes a valid point about SAD when she says:
“SAD is to the annual calendar what PMS is to the monthly cycle.” - Dr. Christianne Northrup
If we can embrace the slower phase of winter for the gifts it gives us in terms of reconnecting with ourselves, clearing out the old and repairing our body, mind and spirit then we stop resisting the flow of the season and instead embrace the change it will bring.
So if you suffer from SAD, pick 2 or 3 (or all if you feel inspired!) of the following ways to make the winter a little brighter:
1. Let there be light
Get a light therapy alarm clock that simulates the sunrise and as soon as you get up, expose your eyes to the light. Open the blinds or go outside if you can. If you have to get up earlier than the sun does, many people find full spectrum light boxes to be really helpful this time of year as well. This will start to shift the grogginess you might experience in the morning.
2. Get a good quality Vitamin D supplement.
Clinical nutritionist, Ben Warren, has stated that "It is virtually impossible to naturally boost your vitamin D stores in winter." For that reason, a good quality Vitamin D supplement can be really useful. The one I recommend is here.
“It is virtually impossible to naturally boost our Vitamin D stores in winter.” - Ben Warren
3. Grab the midday rays
Talk a walk in the middle of the day if you can, even if it’s just for 30 minutes. Natural sunlight and exercise help combat depression.
4. Sweat it out
Even if you can’t get outside, exercise for 30 minutes a day to keep mood boosting endorphins high.
5. Boost your seratonin (the happy drug)
Avoid simple carbs and sugars which will mess with your seratonin levels. You can boost your serotonin levels through taking a good quality fish oil supplement, and eating eggs, nuts and leafy greens. Again, the quality of the supplement is important and the one I recommend is here.
6. Embrace the slow
Flip your perspective of winter and use it as a time to reflect on what needs to be healed, changed or decluttered in your life. Meditate. Sleep more. Allow yourself to get rid of anything you don't want to bring with you into next Spring! (clothes, jobs, people, beliefs, etc).
7. Find things to love about winter
Make a list of things you can love about winter and start looking forward to them. Mine include Game of Thrones, hot chocolate, open fireplaces, winter coats, winter boots, beanies, mittens, flannelette sheets, roast dinners and mid winter xmas parties!
People have experienced AMAZING shifts in their winter blues by using these tools. What's one thing you're going to do choose to do this winter to take charge of your winter blues?
*Interestingly, Dr. LIbby’s research shows that even in summer, New Zealanders can be below optimal levels of Vitamin D. This is because we tend to cover up with sunblock.
Disclaimer: This blog post is for educational purposes only. It is not designed to diagnose, treat or cure. We are all unique so if you have any serious health concerns check with your health professional, naturopath or mental health professional.