Don’t worry— you’re not alone! It’s estimated that 1 in 6 Canadians suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) during the winter months. This is not in your head, well actually it is- but not in the way you might think.
Many of us (especially women) get down in the winter because of the change in our BRAIN CHEMISTRY (so not our fault!). Our brain chemistry literally has the ability to CHANGE OUR MOOD, the way we think and ultimately the way we feel. Heck, it even has the ability to think and feel crazy thoughts and things we would normally not feel- like sell everything we own, pack our bags and move somewhere sunny and hot!
So what’s happening in the body when you experience SAD? Science has shown that people who suffer from SAD experience depression when deprived of adequate SUNLIGHT or other forms of full-spectrum lighting. Without adequate sunlight, the pineal gland makes more MELATONIN. Melatonin is the key hormone that regulates our sleep/wake cycle. Melatonin also consumes SEROTONIN and thus decrease serotonin in our brain.
Serotonin is our FEEL GOOD hormone that helps us feel happy, calm and stable. It also helps us to feel optimistic and motivated. Imagine not having enough of that? Umm, not fun…
Serotonin levels can get particularly low during the winter months, especially if you live in the northern latitude, like us here in Canada and spend a lot of time indoors. *Side Bar: 80% of serotonin is made in your GUT, yet another one of the many reasons I advocate for a healthy digestive system and regular bowel movements (at LEAST 2 a day!).
The combination of these 2 brain chemistry changes alone, serotonin & melatonin, can make you feel DEPRESSED and carry a low-level mood.
How would you know if Your Serotonin Levels are Low?
Here are some classic key signs that you might be lacking in serotonin:
- Lethargy and fatigue
- Low self-esteem and unworthiness
- Poor concentration
- Confusion, inability to focus, poor memory
- Difficulty making decisions
- Anxiety in typically low stress situations
- Negative thoughts with no apparent cause
- Unexplained weight gain
- Decreased sex drive
- Strong cravings for sugar and carbohydrates
- Chronic pain (fibromyalgia, migraines, back pain)
- Excessive worrying
- Obsessive, manic thoughts
- Inability to fall and stay asleep
- Moderate to overwhelming sadness
- Feeling worse and agitated during bad/dark weather
If you are particularly noticing these symptoms in the darker, winter months, it’s a pretty good indicator that you’re lacking the serotonin love.
How Can I Boost Serotonin Naturally?
There are a number ways to get more serotonin into your brain without the use of pharmaceuticals (this is an entire subject topic to be explored by you and your physician).
As a Holistic Nutritionist it is part of our oath that we do not prescribe or diagnosis our clients (and we don’t call them patients either). We simply recommend based on our trained analytical skills and assessment tools.
So here are my top RECOMMENDATIONS based on my skilled training, practice of 5 years and personal experience.
1. Load up on complex carbs & tryptophan rich foods. Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin.
- Bananas: Add to your smoothies, shakes, oatmeal, bake with them, add almond butter or eat them naked
- Flax seeds: A powerhouse food for women, flax can be added to cereals, porridge, shakes, salads, soups
- Oatmeal: Make a porridge, add it to muffin mix, bake with it, make granola, top off yogurt or eat it raw
- Lentils: Add them to salads, stir-fries, make into dip, sprout them, sandwich them
- Chicken: Saute, bake, grill, use as a salad topper, add to soup, stir-fry it up
*Note: People with low serotonin will not do well on LOW CARB DIETS. This is because carbohydrates increase blood levels of tryptophan, which in turn produces lots of serotonin in your brain. Go for complex carbs including brown rice, squash, sweet potatoes, quinoa and pumpkin. Avoid simple carbs such as candy, donuts, cookies and pastries which will give you a quick shot of energy and serotonin but leave you feeling exhausted and depressed shortly thereafter.
2. Move Your Butt!
They don’t call it a runner’s high for nothing. Getting your butt moving, blood circulating and heart huffing and puffing does wonders not only for your muscles, but also for your brain. Exercise can actually increase brain serotonin.
Research and studies have shown that exercise may be just as effective as medication and may be a better alternative for certain. Find an activity you ENJOY not loathe so you will be much more likely to do it- again and again, over and over to get that shot of serotonin.
My personal favs: running, yoga and long-ass walks. Even if I’m in the most foulest, awful mood, it works and proves itself every single time that I feel 100 times better afterwards I do some kind of exercise I enjoy.
3. Get natural LIGHT every day. So this can be tricky, as I mentioned earlier to those of us living in Northern climates. But this is absolutely critical. Natural sunlight provides us with Vitamin D, which is also linked to serotonin levels and SAD.
The majority of Canadians are considered Vitamin D deficient and will need to supplement. You can have your Vitamin D levels tested (ask for 25(OH)D test, also called 25-hydroxyvitamin D, via your physician) but unfortunately this is a paid test in Canada. It might run you around the $35-45 dollar mark, but well worth it to monitor levels.
When we’re not able to obtain enough sunlight from the outdoors, such as the case in the winter or when we are loading up our skin with chemical laden sunscreen, it puts us at higher risk for becoming Vitamin D deficient.
Supplementing, all year round (yes, even in the summer) with liquid D3 form is an awesome way to maintain blood levels. In terms of dosage this can range from 2000 IU per day up to 10, 000 IU per day, depending on where your levels are at.
Your Vitamin D levels should sit optimally at around 50-70 ng/ml. In the United States, the late winter average vitamin D is only about 15-18 ng/ml. This is where your test comes in handy in order to monitor safe levels. Again, ensure that you work with a health practitioner who knows what they are doing.
You can also invest in an SAD lamp also known as a full-spectrum light to help improve your light exposure and re-balance your body.
4. Take 5-HTP. This supplement is proven to have a useful anti-depressant effect on certain individuals. I only recommend using this natural health supplement if you are either working with a natural health practitioner or have consulted a professional who has experience working with health supplements.
5. Have SEX. Yupp, you read it. Sex— and lots of it, safely of course! Like exercise, sex has the ability to actually in increase our serotonin levels. Having an orgasm releases extra serotonin to your brain, acting as an anti-depressant. This is part of why we feel so elated and on cloud 9 after a hot steamy rendezvous.
6. Music Therapy. Listening to peaceful, gentle, relaxing music such as soft jazz, rhythm and blues and even classical can actually increase serotonin. When we listen to music we open up our mind to feel inspired. Pump your favourite feel good tunes and get blissed the heck out.
7. Be of SERVICE. Finding a sense of purpose in a community and serving others the gifts you were brought here to give is a sure way to boost serotonin. There is no better feeling than when we give back and help others less fortunate or who need our help.
If you have experimented and tried all of these, a combination or just simply don’t feel like yourself in the winter months, consult with a professional healthcare practitioner to seek help. Don’t feel that you have to suck it up and suffer. Listen to your body. It will speak only the truth in signs and symptoms, relaying hidden underlying messages to you.
Depression, sadness, fatigue- these are your body’s way of crying out to you that something is off. Something in your life and/or health needs some attention and this is nothing to be ashamed of.
It’s totally normal to feel the winter blues and blahs, but when it starts to rule your life and interfere with daily functions that’s when it’s time to seek a helping hand.