Conquering the winter blues by embracing a healthy lifestyle
Beat the winter blues

As we move through the long dark winter season, many of us will struggle. with the “winter blues”. More scientifically, this is referred to as SAD: seasonal affective disorder or, put simply, seasonal depression. Symptoms of SAD may include the following:

● Low energy levels

● Sleeping more than usual

● Overeating/weight gain

● Becoming antisocial

● Moodiness

● Depression

Although there are no definitive medical reasons for this, there are many factors that can contribute to these unpleasant feelings, including unbalanced levels of melatonin, serotonin, and vitamin D.

Melatonin is a hormone in our bodies that helps us to fall asleep at night by making us feel tired. Our pineal gland produces melatonin when it starts to get dark. Unfortunately, because our Canadian winters lack more than a fair amount of sunlight, our melatonin levels naturally increase.

Serotonin is considered the “happiness” chemical – most antidepressants on the market are designed to try to raise serotonin levels. This chemical also plays an important role in mood, appetite regulation and sleep.

Vitamin D is an essential nutrient that is created when your skin is exposed to natural sunlight. In order for this reaction to take place, the UV index needs to be higher than 3. For most of North America, this only takes place during our short summer months. 

Those who suffer from seasonal depression typically have low levels of serotonin and high levels of melatonin. The combination of increased melatonin production during the winter and a decreased amount of seratonin is a recipe for symptoms of SAD – and, if low Vitamin D levels are related to seasonal depression and anxiety, it should be of no surprise that us Canadians are feeling the side effects.

In addition to all of the above, people suffering from seasonal depression tend to have lower levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine, which are essential for making us feel energetic and motivated.

So, we have the decreased levels of the “happy chemical”, increased levels of the sleep-enhancing chemical, and our neurotransmitters are off. Seems a little hopeless, but it's not! The number one thing you can do to help beat the winter blues is to embrace a healthy lifestyle through structure and routine. Here are some simple tips: 

● Go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day - this will help to keep your circadian rhythms normal

● Eat your meals at around the same time every day, avoiding cravings for simple carbohydrates such as starchy and/or sweet foods

● Choose a balanced diet of protein, fruits and vegetables, especially foods that aid in increasing your serotonin levels (see below)

● Stay connected to the things you love to do and to the people who contribute to your happiness and overall well-being

You can also look to boost your serotonin levels through your diet. Many fruits and vegetables naturally contain serotonin, including the following:

● Pineapples

● Cherries

● Bananas

● Strawberries

● Lettuce

● Green beans

● Eggplant

● Potatoes

Coffee, oats, nuts and peas also contain serotonin.

Another option is to boost your serotonin levels through sunlight. It’s important to get outside whenever the sun is out during the otherwise dark days; this could be as simple as going for a quick walk or taking up a winter activity such as snowshoeing or ice skating.

If you’re struggling, don’t ignore the signs. Talk to someone. Talk to your doctor, a psychologist, family, friends, and so on. Keep in mind, if you are a woman and/or a young adult aged 18-30 you are more likely to suffer from SAD symptoms compared to men and older adults. Diagnostic tests such as blood tests to access your vitamin D levels or a complete blood count may be prescribed in order to rule out other causes of these symptoms.

Last but certainly not least we can use what experts refer to as “Nature's Antidepressant”: EXERCISE. The research is in and has been for a long time. Consistently, research has shown a very strong exercise-mental health connection. Moderate exercise of only 30 minutes a day on most days of the week can increase your serotonin levels and endorphins – chemicals produced by the body to reduce stress and pain. In fact, above everything else, exercise may provide the biggest mood boost possible. To add to this, exercise also helps to improve your immune system, which is something we can all benefit from, especially right now!

Jennifer Slauenwhite is a Fitness Professional and a Mother of two with a passion for health and overall well-being. She has spent her entire life in the fitness industry through many family owned and operated fitness centres and has spent the last decade cultivating a community of strong like-minded women. She strives to set an example for women to be the best they can be by channeling their inner athlete and putting up some healthy competition against themselves! #leadbyexample

Jennifer Slauenwhite is a paid spokesperson of Sonnet Insurance.
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