Winter in the northern hemisphere can cause seasonal affective disorder in some people. A West Island naturopath has some advice on how to mitigate it.

Cold, dark and far too long. This is how Canadians describe winter. In fact, winter is the season when people are most likely to experience a form of melancholia called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). A wintertime mood disorder associated with low light levels, SAD can manifest as fatigue, low energy, trouble sleeping, difficulty focusing, mild depression and a craving for carbohydrate-rich foods.

“In the past, we used to have more respect for our circadian rhythms,” says West Island naturopath Sharon Cohen. “It was natural to sleep more during the winter, which is a time for dormancy. What do trees do in winter? They send strength to their roots. Winter is a time for us to also turn inward, to nourish ourselves.”

The concept of having a season of dormancy seems quaintly anachronistic in our 24/7 world, with its artificial lighting. So how do we get through the dark, cold months of winter without experiencing the winter blues? Begin by taking stock of the past year, Ms. Cohen suggests. “Ask yourself what nourishes you and what depletes you. Take stock of your beliefs and your patterns.”

Women are three times more likely than men to experience SAD, according to Ms. Cohen. “It seems to be worse among women going through hormonal changes, such as peri-menopause,” she says, adding that one cause of SAD may be vitamin D deficiency because of winter’s reduced levels of sunlight.

However, even without a diagnosis of seasonal affective disorder, anyone living in the northern hemisphere can feel melancholic during the long winter months. “It’s important to be aware of the thoughts and beliefs you have about winter,” Ms. Cohen says. “How much of this thinking is habitual? Our thoughts create our physicality. So we need empowering thoughts.”

You may not be quite ready to welcome winter as a beautiful season, but there are many things you can do to mitigate the symptoms of SAD, she says. 

Light therapy, which uses a device designed to mimic full-spectrum light, can be helpful when used in the morning upon awakening, Ms. Cohen says. “Fifteen to 30 minutes daily beside a light box can help boost serotonin levels. You don’t look at it head-on; you look at it peripherally.”

Another remedy is regular exercise, which also stimulates endorphins in the brain, she says. “Exercise reduces brain fog. Do it every day for a minimum of 20 minutes. If you do it outside in the fresh air, noon is the best time during the winter.”

Other habits that can help banish the winter blues include:

* Taking a vitamin D supplement and eating foods that contain omega-3 oils: wild salmon, sardines, mackerel, herrings, anchovies, chia and flax seeds, and walnuts. If fish isn’t to your liking, a cod liver oil supplement can provide omega-3 oils, she says.

* You may crave that bag of potato chips, but avoid unhealthy carbohydrate-rich foods, Ms. Cohen advises. “Instead, opt for whole-grain carbs, such as gluten-free oats, squash, sweet potatoes and quinoa,” she says.

* Light your home and office with full-spectrum incandescent lights.

* Create daily rituals that infuse joy into your life. “My first ritual in the morning is to express gratitude,” Ms. Cohen says. “You can think of a million things to be grateful for. It sets the tone for the day and creates healthy hormones in the body. I also start my day with a half cup of hot water with lemon juice, and participate in a yoga class or go for an hour-long walk.”  

* Incorporate mindfulness into that outdoor walk. “That means that you walk mindfully, listening to bird song, smelling the freshness of the air, and feeling your feet connecting with the earth. Be here now in whatever you’re doing,” she says. 

* Be kind to yourself, Ms. Cohen says. “Even if you forget to do something or choose to not engage in self-care one day, forgive yourself. Getting a massage, reflexology or energy work enables you to feel good in your body again.”  

Finally, if the winter blues are simply overwhelming and you are struggling to banish them, consider enlisting help. “A therapist or a naturopath can help,” Ms. Cohen says. “Talk therapy, body work and nutrition advice can all help to get you through this season.”

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