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Seasonal Affective Disorder: Get the Facts

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Author: Dr. Alyson Munkley, ND Thornbury, ON

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Seasonal Affective Disorder: Get the Facts


Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is believed to affect up to 20% of the Canadian population.  For up to 6% of people, this condition may develop into symptoms of major depression, including excess sleep, overeating, significant weight gain, and social withdrawal.

The “winter blues” are a milder form of this disorder, characterized by symptoms including irritability, moodiness, increased sweet cravings, lethargy, and trouble concentrating. 

Sound familiar?  With shorter days and less time outdoors, almost everyone experiences some degree of melancholy in the winter months.

How Winter Affects Our Psychological Health

The sleep-wake cycle is controlled by light exposure.  At night, darkness triggers the release of the sleep hormone, melatonin.  Serotonin is released in the morning in response to sunlight, and is associated with feeling energized, refreshed, and positive, not surprisingly described as a “sunny disposition”.

In the winter months, people who suffer from SAD produce higher levels of melatonin and lower levels of serotonin, similar to hibernating animals.  Fortunately there are effective strategies for getting your hormones back into balance and elevating your mood.

5 Winter Mood-Elevating Strategies

1.  Morning light exposure:  The American Journal of Psychiatry reported a significant reduction in depression symptoms in response to light therapy.  Try taking a 20 minute walk at sunrise during the winter months to stimulate morning serotonin release and increase positive moods.

2.  Sleep in Total Darkness: Even the smallest amount of light exposure during the night can throw off regular rhythms of melatonin and serotonin production, having a significant impact on your quality of sleep, increasing cancer risk, and affecting energy levels during the day.  If you use the washroom during the night, try not to turn on the lights.

3.  Omega 3 fatty acids:  Numerous studies support the link between omega 3 fatty acid consumption and lowered rates of depression.  Consumption of omega 3 oils in Western society has declined substantially in the past century. Sources include fish, walnuts, and flax.  Fish oil, being a direct source of the active components EPA and DHA, is the best source of this essential fatty acid.

4.  Vitamin D: sunlight exposure is required for internal vitamin D production, and this vitamin is also interestingly linked to serotonin levels.  A naturopathic doctor can help you to determine the best dose of supplemental vitamin D for you.  Cod liver oil is a source of both omega 3’s and vitamin D.

5.  Exercise: The British Journal of Sports Medicine reported that 30 minutes of walking/day had significantly higher mood-elevating effects than anti-depressant drugs.  This is one of many studies illustrating the impact of exercise on our mental and emotional health.  Exercise is also great for insomnia, weight control, and reducing insulin resistance.


For more information about Alyson Munkley please visit: www.alysonmunkley.com 


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