Getting out of bed these days is brutal. After I finally drag myself up, only to be greeted by the cold tiles in the bathroom, I get to repeat the process with my son. Some days I never hit my stride and my sweet tooth is threatening to take over. I’ve got no zest for life; I feel washed-out. From about 5:00 onward, all I think about is going to bed, sleeping is all I want to do once I’m there.
Yup. I have a clear case of S.A.D.
Seasonal affective disorder shows up in an about 3-5% of Canadians – closer to 15% if you count the milder form of “winter blues”. It’s a very real form of depression that hits in countries at the northern- and southern-most parts of the planet.
Logical in these months of reduced daylight, though I’d say it gets compounded by the fact that we modern city folk tend to spend far too much time indoors, no matter what time of year. And when we do go out, we keep our skin covered and our eyes well shaded.
We’re systematically depriving ourselves of one of the most nourishing nutrients we have: the sun.
The sun’s rays on the cholesterol in your skin provides vitamin D. Sunlight also enter your eyes, hits your retina, stimulating your pineal gland. As the regulator of your entire system, this wise little nugget of fat, nerves and minerals controls circadian rhythms, both large (life cycles) and small (day/night).
The pineal secretes melatonin as daylight wanes in the evening, to make you sleepy and keep you knocked out until dawn. Daylight and the blue of the sky shut off its production so you can get up and go the next morning.
It’s logical that on the shorter days, the memo to ease up on the sleepiness gets delayed.
Were we smart and followed our animal nature around this, we’d honour the lack of light (and heat!) and slow down through these deep days of winter. Heck, those squirrels and polar bears sure know what’s what as they gorge, make a cozy bed, then nap for weeks. But we live in a society that clings tightly to a set schedule. That values productivity and being “on” more than listening to your personal needs.
Everything in Nature screams to slow down, have a nap, take it easy, yet we insist on driving through a snowstorm on icy roads to get to a meeting. When I asked my osteopath about her holidays, she guiltily told me about watching an entire season of Broadchurch in one day with her husband, then quickly went on to justify the “indulgence”.
Other than impairing your ability to go-go-go, this low energy state drags some of us into a full depression. Melatonin is made from serotonin – one of your feel-good neurotransmitters. With more of the latter being shunted into the former, your usual good moods and energy have quite literally gone into hibernation.
Serotonin, in turn, is made from tryptophan, so you crave starchy food in search of a source. More specifically, you want sugar, as it’s both the quickest route to more energy (albeit not a sustainable one) and another stimulator of the feel-good centres in your brain.
Many North Americans have learned the good habit of popping vitamin D through the winter months to protect bones, digestive tract, immunity and breasts from lack of sun on our skin. (If you haven’t got on this train yet, start!)
It’s just as vital to supplement the lack of sun in your brain.
Here are 3 ways to do just that.
1. Light therapy
The regular bulbs in your home and office aren’t enough to do the trick, though ironically, they’re enough to set your melatonin off-kilter when you’ve got them all on late into the evening.
As a bonus, this practice not only reduces the effects of S.A.D., it helps regulate all your cycles – sleep, menstruation, fertility.
You need full-spectrum light. Sunlight.
Get out into the daylight for a good 10-20 minutes every morning, without any type of lenses covering your eyes. Ditch the shades when you walk the dog or the kids to school. Go an extra couple of blocks before hopping on the bus. If it’s mild enough, have your morning tea on the deck.
Lunchtime is the next best time to do this.
Open the blinds in your office; move your desk so can see outside.
Even if you’re not getting direct sunlight – the sun’s only just coming up as I head out these days at 7:40 – you can still drink in the blue of the sky or the hint of brightness behind the clouds.
When I conscientiously look up at the sky rather than bow my head against the cold in the morning, it makes a marked difference to my energy levels and mood.
If you don’t have the luxury of an extra 20 minutes outside – I won’t harp on at the moment about all the ways this is good for you – then get yourself a full-spectrum lamp or two. Have it on in the room(s) where you spend most of your time each day.
2. Take some down time.
Remember, the pineal gland is about rhythms & cycles. Which means turning off just as much as being on.
If your energy wanes at this time of year, don’t fight it.
Honouring the fact that this is a season of drawing inward and quiet rest attunes your body and recharges your batteries for the more energetic times of the warmer months.
- Switch from power yoga to restorative yoga. This delicious practice nurtures you with lots of gentle poses and support with blankets.
- Have more evenings in than out. Jigsaw puzzles and board games come out more often at our house. They draw us together as a family or make a great excuse for putting on a pot of chili and having some friends over.
- Choose a meaty novel or your journal over TV. Tackle the classics you’ve had on your shelf for years, or see what the library has among the new arrivals. (If you prefer an e-reader to paper books, be sure to put it on night mode.)
- Get more sleep. By all means, go to bed a bit earlier. Sleep in a bit later on the weekend. The snow will still be there to play in when you get up.
3. Eat your way out of the blues.
Feed your brain with adequate protein and good fats to keep neurotransmitter and hormone levels up to par.
Nourish your need for sugar and comfort food with squashes and roasted root vegetables. Not only are these yummy choices packed with nutrients, you can think of them as concentrated sunshine – the sugar molecules literally being the sun’s energy in carbon and water.
How do you keep yourself energized through the winter? When you share your thoughts in the comments, you open the possibilities for others.
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I am lucky to live in Arizona, a place that is absolutely glorious in the winter. I take advantage of the 65-70 degrees and sunshine by taking lots of afternoon walks with World’s Most Precious Pooch. 🙂
Cathy, come visit me as part of your anti-S.A.D. therapy! 🙂
Wouldn’t that be lovely!
That’s such a good question, Cathy. I think I just give myself permission to burrow in in the winter months. I go to bed early, get up with the sun, cook warming foods (love root vegetables, polenta, soups and stews at this time of year) and generally, honor my body’s rhythms. I gain a few pounds every winter and I embrace them knowing they are there to protect me and keep me a little warmer. They fall away in spring with no effort at all. This was not always the case for me. I think I suffered from S.A.D. more in the years I fought against this season, those pounds … not trusting my body to find its own equilibrium. Thank you for the insightful post and the practical suggestions. It’s always a pleasure to read your words.
Ah yes, the suffering is often in the fighting against. How wise of you to hunker down and ride the inward wave while it lasts.
good information, cathy. thank you. i’ve lived in both alaska and the seattle area. though the sun took its time getting up in the mornings in alaska, i never really suffered from SAD because of the sparkling white snow that illuminated evertything. but oh my, how dark the winters were in western washington! i lived literally inside the forest and it was so gloomy i could barely stand it. movement, a warm bright fire, and lots of good books were helpful to me. (also warm vivid colors inside my house!)
Vivid colours in the house – great idea! And while I have no fireplace, leaving a few twinkle lights around after the Christmas decorations are away help too.
Thank you for this post, my sister suffers from S.A.D. here in England and it’s really good to know that there are some tools to help. I will pass this post on to her.
Thanks for the referral, Angela. Have your sister let me know if any of this works for her.