Updated: Dec 16, 2019
December can be challenging for us northerners that are prone to the winter blues.
If you are doing well this winter, fantastic. No need to read any further. If however, you (or someone you know) are experiencing brain fog, extreme tiredness or overwhelm then keep reading. And before we get started, let's be clear, I'm not a medical professional so any tips you gather from this are based on my personal experience managing Seasonal Affective Disorder and include knowledge gained from my studies in Ayurveda (yogic health system) and advice from several natural health focused professionals over the years. Second thing to note is I am imperfect. I don't always make the wisest choice for myself even though I 'know better'. Lastly, don't try to do ALL these things at once, but rather choose one or two that resonate with you and do them regularly.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD for short), is a type of depression related to season changes, primarily the lack of sunlight. People who experience SAD tend to develop symptoms of low energy-extreme exhaustion, moodiness, reduced sex drive and function, brain fog, poor concentration, sleep problems, carbohydrate cravings and subsequently, weight gain. Sounds fun right? Symptoms usually start in the fall and subside in the spring with the return of stronger and longer periods of sunlight. Some folks (like myself) even experience a burst of manic-like energy in the peak light months.
Physiologically, in darker months, there is a decrease in the neurotransmitters dopamine (our 'happy reward' hormone) and serotonin (believed to regulate our mood and social behaviour, appetite and digestion, sleep, memory, and sexual desire and function) and an increase in melatonin (which makes us sleepy).
While the carbs (temporarily) satisfy the dopamine shortfall, they can cause weight gain, blood sugar yo-yo'ing and thus, (you guessed it) more tiredness. Excess snacking also contributes to ama, an Ayurvedic term for the sludge that builds up in our bodies when our digestion isn't working optimally. Yes, more tiredness and brain fog. If we don't get dopamine from food, we'll find it elsewhere such as shopping (hello HomeSense!), gambling...anything we can get addicted to really is up for grabs. These things give us a short-term high and perhaps, guilt and anxiety over time or money not well spent. We might procrastinate or put things off (now things pile up). These can all contribute to symptoms of more depression and anxiety. A person can end up in shutdown, not able to face the day or get out of bed (this was me 15–20 years ago, not knowing what the heck was wrong with me).
As someone who managed Seasonal Affective Disorder my whole adult life, I know this territory very well and my symptoms vary from year to year, depending on weather and my habits.
This year, my symptoms crept in early (recall the grey, rainy fall we had here in Manitoba). I've already pulled myself out of a few ruts applying some compassionate discipline to get myself back into my healthy habits. Here is my tried and true list of things I do to turn things around, stay well, and access my inner light. Give them a read to see what lands for you.
1. Let some light in - Even though an outdoor walk has many benefits (brisk fresh air, sounds and sights of nature), the strength of the sunlight is too weak to offer us enough vitamin D (plus the extreme cold here prevents us from going out as often). So I tan a couple times a week, take a supplement, and use a SAD light. You can find SAD lights locally at Diamond Athletics or Mood Disorders of Manitoba. Note: Use of a SAD light (ex 15–20 min/day) is the most important remedy known to treat SAD and it can take 2–3 days to feel the effect.
2. Move to sweat
In addition to mindful movement, I do stuff that elevates my heart rate and brings on a sweat. This might be spending 20 minutes doing some interval training or cardio or perhaps a vigorous snowshoe in a nearby park. When I'm short on time, I put on some music, jump on my re-bounder and dance for a few minutes. Morning is the best time for me as my workout clears my brain fog for the rest of the day (plus better chance it actually happening). Heat itself can be balancing to our physiology in the winter. So if you have access to a hot tub, dry sauna or steam room, take advantage.
3. Back to basics to heal the gut
I'm conscious of my 'brain-gut connection' and know a healthy gut and adequate protein absorption contribute to healthy brain and optimal neurotransmitter production. Getting back to the basics of cooking whole foods, eating meals at regular times, eating food in in calm environment, and chewing food well all help me optimize my digestion. Tricky this time of year is minimizing snacking and giving my digestion a solid rest at night (earlier lighter dinners and skip breakfast if not hungry, known as intermittent fasting). There are lots of varying opinions out there and I recommend consulting with a local holistic nutritionist or naturopathic doctor to advise you on optimizing your nutrition.
I take Vitamin D3 & Vitamin B12, Schuessler's tissue salts, fish oil, herbs, and Juice Plus tablets and pro-biotics. Note that vitamin dosage recommendations seem to vary greatly, so consult your health care professional about what is right for you, taking into account existing medications.
5. Practice sleep hygiene
I aim to get 8 hours of sleep and to do that I eat an earlier, lighter supper (rest my digestive organs rather than working all night to digest a late or heavy meal) and consciously shut down technology an hour before bed. I wind down with a few minutes of quiet, gentle movement. I often give my feet a quick massage with some organic massage oil to combat dryness and improve sleep quality.
6. Somatic Breathwork
I practice this work with my fellow breathwork facilitators to bring subconscious material to the surface for awareness, processing and possible release. It can shine the light on outdated belief systems, release grief and trauma held in our nervous systems that contribute to chronic pain, depression and anxiety. In addition to offering private sessions, I'm offering a new group class in January that combines somatic movement and breathwork.
7. Check things off the to-do list
I love lists for the sake of staying organized (helps when I have severe brain fog) and mostly, the feeling of happiness (dopamine) I get as I check things off that list. Note there is a fine line and self talk awareness here to watch out for...the trick is to make a reasonable list so it doesn't feel overwhelming and to not criticize myself when I don't get it all done.
8. Practice gratitude
This may sound cliche or just old news and this practice of looking for the good and what is working, what we have can reframe my entire day. Simply write down 3 things you are grateful for each day. I love The 5-Minute Journal.
9. Connect with others and reach out for help
Connection is a powerful healing tool. Yet it's common to isolate ourselves when we feel really low. I'm lucky to have family and close friends who really get it, so I reach out to them when I need support. Just letting someone know I'm struggling makes a huge difference. And in my experience, being vulnerable gives others permission to do the same, and we all realize we are not alone. There is something really tremendous in that. You can reach out to a local mental health agency, such as Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba or a peer support/mental wellness counsellor such as Janelle Cancade White.
10. Practice self-acceptance & compassion
Above all, I remember to accept my symptoms when they show up and be kind to myself. When I'm having a rough day, I remind myself that these are just symptoms I'm experiencing, and they don't define me. I ask myself, "What is the one thing I could do today to feel better?" It's taken many years for my self talk about this condition to shift from the critic to that of an encouraging coach. Unconditional, radical acceptance is still a work in progress for me. Great resources on this topic is The Mindful Path to Self Compassion and teachings of Tara Brach (mindfulness teacher).
Important note: Despite knowing what to do, when we are in a 'hole', there can be a lack of the ambition and ability needed to shift things. We can't always pull ourselves out, even though we desperately want to. Remember, this is due to a chemical imbalance in your body, not weak character or lack of will power. If this is the case for you (or a friend), reach out for help (or support that friend). Contact your health care provider, on-line resources and explore therapies and/or medication to help you through a tough time.
Joy offers mindful movement classes in her St. Vital home studio and in the community. She also sees clients privately, offering unique, customized Blend to Mend movement or therapeutic breathwork sessions. January 2020 class schedule is now open for registration.