Safeguarding mental health in winter

 In Opinion

This time of year can be really difficult for most folks. The short days and colder weather can do a number on our mood and feelings of wellbeing. This low mood in winter months can be referred to as SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). SAD is seen as a combination of low motivation, fatigue, low/negative feelings of self, brain fog and lack of concentration. Even if you are not experiencing all of these, here are some ways to help rebalance your mental health in the winter.

Morning Light Exposure – This is important to regulate your circadian rhythm and to up-regulate proper hormone production that controls our sleep/ wake center of the brain. Morning light helps balance the rise and fall of our stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol should increase in the morning to energize you for the day and come down in the evening to prepare you for sleep. Screens and artificial light skew this natural rhythm, so light in the morning helps resets these innate bodily rhythms.

Exercise 30 minutes daily – This we all know but often don’t implement in winter months when our emotional wellbeing needs it the most. The Journal of the American Medical Association says, “significant mental health benefits come from being physically active, even at levels below the public health recommendations.” In my opinion the best way to do this is have an exercise buddy, where you can meet for a walk or even a virtual class together to hold each other accountable and be able to celebrate your milestones together.

Vitamin D3 – This super vitamin is linked to feelings of low mood and SAD when levels are low. This vitamin is up-regulated by sun and light exposure, so as Canadians in winter months, we are often low in this vitamin. Your levels can be measured in the blood and should be in order to dose accordingly, but common practice is to use 1000-4000 IU per day to address a deficiency.

5-HTP – This is an amino acid and chemical precursor to serotonin. 5-HTP can be used to increase serotonin, the neurotransmitter that brings feelings of contentment. I frequently use this in practice for patients with low mood and often just prescribe it during the winter months to help the brain stabilize until the warmer, sunnier months come back. Serotonin is the precursor to melatonin, our sleep hormone, so it also has beneficial effects on sleep and regulating our circadian rhythms.

The implementation of all four of these recommendations can really help, but if you are struggling please seek professional help with your nearest mental health professional, MD or Naturopath. Winter can be beautiful in Ontario, so I hope this can help encourage maximum enjoyment this winter!

Kate Hunter is a naturopathic doctor and owner of The Creemore Apothecary.

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