We are privileged to live in a four-season province and enjoy the spring flowers, summer heat, autumn colours and winter snow. But that also means that every year, there’s potential for the winter blues, seasonal affective disorder or general blahs to creep up on us, any time from October to April. For some, this might mean feeling unmotivated and unsocial; others might feel full-on depression. The change in our mood doesn’t happen overnight, and sometimes we don’t realize we were feeling blue until we come out of our fog in the spring. But what if there were some proactive steps you could take to keep those curtains open in your brain? Let’s be proactive this year!
Due to BC’s latitude on the globe, there are only a few months in the summer where the sun’s UVB rays hit our skin in such a way that we can produce vitamin D. Our body makes vitamin D (more accurately a hormone) from the UVB rays hitting a form of cholesterol in our skin. This hormone then travels through our body, being converted into forms essential in immune function and priming, bone health and mineral metabolism, and mood and brain health.
In the sunshine from May to October there is potential for us to make vitamin D. Because our country covers much latitude, the months of production vary depending on where you are. The best way to check for production potential: when your shadow is shorter than you are, the sun’s rays are coming at the correct angle. Production also depends on the time of day, the darkness of your skin and the length of time in the sun. Peak rays (10 am to 2 pm), for 20 minutes (for fair skin) to 2 hours (for very dark skin) without sunscreen help max out your daily dose.
In theory, we can produce and store enough vitamin D for a few months, potentially lasting through the winter. But most of us won’t have enough sun exposure, and we might use more vitamin D than the next person. Because vitamin D plays such an important role in our mood and nervous system, a deficiency over the winter can contribute to our deteriorating mood.
If we’ve already missed our summer vitamin D producing months this year, what can we do?
Traditionally, cultures in polar latitudes would supplement with vitamin D-rich foods like liver and fish liver oils. Fish, grass-fed butter, egg yolks and mushrooms also contain forms of vitamin D. In current times we can purposefully eat these foods regularly, and/or supplement with cod liver oil.
Supplementing with vitamin D3 is a great way to top up our production. How much isn’t a straightforward answer—our ideal amount is dictated by our serum levels of 25(OH)D. A blood test can tell us, but it’s an out-of-pocket expense in BC, costing about $65. If you don’t know your levels, a place to start for adults is 1,000 to 2,000 IU in the sunny months, and 3,000 to 4,000 IU in the darker winter. Take it with a meal that contains fat for optimal absorption.
How about a tropical vacation? A luxury for sure, but there are therapeutic properties of going south, particularly if seasonal blues impede enjoyment of your days. Going south puts the sun back up in the sky, allowing vitamin D to top up mood-producing hormones.
Sunshine provides more positive mood benefits than just vitamin D production. The light entering our pineal gland does wonders for setting our diurnal day cycle, ensuring it knows when to support our daytime energy and when to signal our evening wind-down hormones. If we’re in a dark and cloudy environment our whole day, it’s bound to get confused.
To pre-empt a sad winter, it can also be helpful to have fun activities to look forward to. Book a recurring date with friends, join a book club, or find a weekly exercise, yoga or painting class. Have fun, social and “me” time scheduled, and treat it with the importance of a doctor’s appointment. Consider embracing the season by creating comfort with the Danish art of hygge. Think candles, cozy blankets, fuzzy slippers, a reading nook and anything that brings you joy. Twinkle lights aren’t just for the holidays!
Support Your Diurnal Cycle
- Stick to a routine
Get up at the same time in the morning, and go to bed at the same time at night. Preferably get to sleep before 10 or 11 pm, to maximize melatonin production (a very strong antioxidant and relaxation hormone we make in the dark).
- Get daily daylight
This can be a struggle in many places in the winter, particularly if it’s dark when you go to work and again when you go home. It’s important to see natural light when you can. When you get up in the morning, open all your curtains and eat breakfast in front of the window. Take a walk outside during your lunch break. Get outside every day.
- Take up a winter hobby or sport
Get above the cloud cover. Try downhill or Nordic skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing or snowmobiling, or strap on some spikes to go for a hike in the hills or mountains. Go to a local ski hill village for a tea and stroll.
- Use a SAD lamp or light box
These lights give us some of the brightness and rays of the sun from the comfort of our homes, and help to stimulate production of our feel-good hormone serotonin. Sit close for 30–60 minutes while you eat breakfast, read the news or start your workday.
These are all tips for being proactive this potentially low-mood season. Planning ahead this year means you don’t have to feel quite so blah!
Angela Wright, cnp is one of the nutritionists at Nature’s Fare Markets. As an instructor at the Institute of Holistic Nutrition, Ange enjoys teaching individuals or students how to read, correct and action on their symptoms.
Learn more: alignnutrition.com