We are still well and truly in the thick of winter here in Canada and although I do prefer them to the Australian winters, sometimes they do get me down.
After getting really sick at the end of January, I have been craving long summer days, sleeping a lot and finding it harder to stay motivated for anything. All definite signs that I am experiencing some winter blues. Something that is perfectly normal for this time of the year.
This article from Hélène Descoteaux is perfect for anyone who is feeling a little down at the moment, or knows someone who is being affected by the winter months. Hélène is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist and the founder of Costal Roots Nutrition and Lifestyle. I am very excited for her guest post as she gives a beautiful explanation on why we experience the winter blues and what we can do to get ourselves feeling good again. Over to you Hélène….
Fending Off The Winter Blues
I’ve always loved the seasonality of living in Canada, even though it is admittedly less pronounced out here on the coast of British Columbia. The spring brings growth and expansion with all the flora and fauna following suit. Summer is filled with memories of sun, surf, adventure, and never ending days. With fall comes change, probably a relic of ‘back-to-school’ days, crisp leaves and a cool breeze.
Despite the unhurried pace and snow-capped stoke that winter evokes for some, many people living in the North can easily experience the winter blues. Spoken about in medical terms as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), the lack of light and changes in our routine can have a very real impact on our mood and overall mental wellbeing.
In the Northern Hemisphere, we experience shorter days, colder weather, more cloud cover (especially if you’re here on the west coast), scarcer availability of fresh produce, and changes in our routine. Some key biochemical processes needed to optimize our brain functioning and mental health are affected by these seasonal changes. Fortunately, there are many ways we can protect our brains and elevate our moods with proper nutrition and lifestyle – I describe just a few of my favourites below.
Exercise & Sleep
Exposure to light and exercise play a key role in boosting serotonin, an important neurotransmitter for elevating mood and an overall sense of well-being.
Though it can be difficult to control our light exposure with the shortened days and overcast skies of winter, exercise and maintaining an adequate and regular sleep schedule have been shown to help improve serotonin levels. Getting outside to snowboard, snowshoe, skate, ski, or build snowmen are fantastic ways to get some light exposure AND exercise this winter.
When your schedule (or weather) doesn’t allow, there are several other activities such as yoga, swimming and dance that can be done indoors that allow you to keep moving and grooving this winter. Get your friends and family involved by making your social outings active and you’ll have the added benefits of their company and motivation. If you work indoors during daylight hours, try enjoying your coffee break outside, or go for a short walk during lunch.
Eat more healthy fats
Omega-3 fatty acids have been well established to play an integral role in mental health. In fact, almost 60% of our brains are made of fat. So, by supplying our brain with adequate amounts of healthy fats, we are giving ourselves the building blocks to make sure all our ‘happy signals’ are getting to where they need to go.
Omega-3, unlike Vitamin D, cannot be produced by the body and must be obtained by dietary sources. Some dietary sources of Omega-3’s include fatty fish (especially wild salmon and sardines), seeds (ground flax, chia, and hemp), and nuts (pecans and walnuts). Try incorporating wild, sustainably caught fish in to your diet 3-4 times a week. Easily add nuts and seeds to salads, stir frys, and baking, or try this recipe for homemade granola bars.
Vitamin D Supplementation
Vitamin D – the sunshine vitamin! Aptly named because the majority of our Vitamin D comes from exposing our skin to sunlight. In technical terms, Vitamin D is actually a hormone that we can amazingly produce ourselves with exposure to sunlight (or UVB rays to be exact). Unfortunately, approximately 1/3 of Canadians have been found to have blood levels of Vitamin D below what is sufficient for optimal health with that number increasing in the winter months.
Vitamin D has been found to play an important role in maintaining bone health, the prevention of autoimmune disease, cardiovascular disease and cancers. Further research is needed to determine the role of Vitamin D in Seasonal Affective Disorder and depression, however, both Vitamin D and Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to be important in serotonin synthesis.
We are not able to get adequate Vitamin D from food sources alone, however, some dietary sources of Vitamin D include, fatty fish (especially wild salmon, snapper, mackerel), dairy products, and egg yolks (organic if possible). I highly recommend taking a Vitamin D supplement, especially in the winter months. High quality Vitamin D3 in an oil carrier can be easily found at local health food stores and is most easily absorbed by the body.
Your personal health is a continuous, ever-changing journey of nourishing the physical, mental, and spiritual self. Seasons remind us to tune in to and re-evaluate what our individual needs are throughout the year and throughout our lives – what nourishes you?
*This article is intended as advice to support overall health and not as a prescriptive cure for depression. If you are suffering with depression it is important to seek individualized help from a health care professional.*
Hélène Descoteaux is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist (RHN) with the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition and has a Bachelor’s Degree in Human Geography. She is presently living on the Pacific Rim of Vancouver Island and following her passion of advocating for both human and environmental health.