How to Fight Those Winter Blues

If you’ve noticed a recent decline in your mental health and find yourself feeling down or depressed, you may have a condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Seasonal Affective Disorder affects as many as 15% of Canadians, and typically develops during the fall and winter seasons. It is four times more common in women, though it can also impact men. It also tends to be more common in adults, though children and adolescents can be affected by SAD too — and, as with any type of mental illness, Seasonal Affective Disorder should be taken just as seriously.

As mentioned, the most common sign of Seasonal Affective Disorder is depression. This can least most of the day, or almost every day. You may also notice that you’ve lost interest in activities that you once enjoyed, have a decrease in your energy level, notice changes in your sleeping patterns (such as oversleeping or having trouble falling asleep), trouble concentrating, feel sluggish, irritable, anxious, and also develop changes in your appetite (such as eating too much, eating unhealthy foods, or not eating enough — which may or may not lead to weight loss or weight gain.)

As for what triggers Seasonal Affective Disorder, it stems from reduced sunlight — and the less sunlight that there is during the day, the less serotonin production you have, which is the chemical in your brain that is responsible for balancing mood, and it can also have an impact on the body’s natural circadian rhythm. The good news is that SAD is both treatable and preventable.

One thing that can help prevent Seasonal Affective Disorder is by spending more time outdoors during daylight hours. Getting a daily dose of sunshine can help lift your mood as well as synchronize the body’s internal clock. To reap these benefits, it’s suggested that you spend at least 30 minutes a day outside — whether it’s going for a walk or heading up to Whistler (or any other local mountain) to go skiing. The food you eat can also have an impact on the severity of SAD. The best foods to consume in order to help prevent SAD are those that are rich in Vitamin B12, which is required by the body in order for it to produce serotonin. For example, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and nuts. It’s also a good idea to increase your intake of Vitamin D, also known as the “sunshine vitamin”, as this will also help to increase serotonin activity. You can find Vitamin D in sources like milk and fish, or you can also take a Vitamin D supplement.

Social relationships can also have an impact on the mind. The more socially isolated you are, especially during the fall and winter months, the more this contributes to your low mood. Whether it’s going for coffee, lunch/dinner, or finding another fun activity to partake in together, try to keep your social interactions strong.

If you’re having a hard time sleeping at night, it’s also a good idea to try to get on a normal sleep schedule. This means going to bed and getting up at the same time each day. When you sleep in, or when you have a sleeping pattern that differs from day to say, it is much more difficult for the body’s internal clock to synchronize, which not only worsens your fatigue, but also your mood. Many of the time, poor sleeping habits often occur as a result of spending too much time using things like smart phones, computers, or watching tv late at night, so you’ll want to limit your screen time. You could also try relaxation techniques, such as meditation. If you are suffering from severe insomnia and have tried everything to get a good night’s rest but still find it near impossible, your physician may then need to prescribe you a medication to help you sleep.

Originally published at on January 8, 2019.



Dr. Ali Ghahary is a Family Physician in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

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