Beat the Blues This Winter

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Dear Health Conscious Reader,


Your body depends on getting enough sunlight every day to function properly. Nature designed you that way. Our ancestors lived outdoors every moment of their lives. They hunted meat, fish and fowl. They ate, worked, gathered, celebrated, worshipped and mourned under the sun. So your cells, organs, bones and tissues evolved to rely on sunlight.

But just before the turn of the 20th century, our living conditions changed. It started with the invention of the light bulb, which gave us an artificial way to generate light. The industrial revolution soon followed, and people started migrating to the cities and working indoors.

This migration indoors combined with modern medical advice has altered our native relationship with the sun forever.

Modern medicine tells you that you need to stay out of the sun at all costs. And what’s worse is that you’re told if you do go outside, you need to layer on sunscreen to “protect” yourself.

So we sit inside all day behind desks at work. Our kids are content playing video games inside instead of running around outside. And we’ve gotten away from the sun … far away.

As a result, many patients come into my clinic feeling miserable and can’t understand why. If you’re feeling this way, too, you may be suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

SAD is a type of depression that can cause:

  • weight gain and appetite changes
  • anxiety and depression
  • oversleeping
  • lack of energy
  • difficulty concentrating and processing information

And, of course, it’s a major drag around the holidays – when you’re supposed to be happy and cheerful.

What causes SAD? I wouldn’t blame you for thinking it’s caused by the shorter, colder days and longer nights of winter. After all, the name is seasonal affective disorder. But if it’s just due to winter, why have studies shown that people in Iceland, which has long, cold winters, are relatively immune to SAD?1

And it’s not just Icelanders. Other studies show that Canadians have a lower rate of SAD than Americans who live farther south.2

Another study in a Scandinavian journal reports people who live above the Arctic Circle have remarkably low rates of seasonal depression.3

The bottom line here is that it’s not the amount of time sunlight is available for each day that makes people depressed. It’s the amount of sunlight you’re exposed to – or not exposed to – that causes SAD.

SAD is rare in people who live in northern climates because they’re more apt to go outside during the few hours it’s sunny, and soak it up. This increases your vitamin D levels – 20 minutes of sunshine can give you as much as 10,000 IU. And vitamin D isn’t just a vitamin, it’s a hormone. You feel better when your levels are highest.

A study of over 3,000 people ages 40-79 found those with higher levels of vitamin D were more active, performed better on tests and were in better moods.4

Sunshine also affects the levels of other “feel-good” hormones in your body, like serotonin. But when the sunshine fades, your serotonin levels can drop. However, your melatonin hormone levels increase. This hormone helps you fall asleep, and darkness triggers your body to secrete it. So that’s why you may tend to feel down or less energetic during the cloudy days of winter.

Most doctors will prescribe anti-depressants to relieve SAD symptoms. But you can beat it naturally and without the harmful side effects of drugs by following these simple steps:

1. Light up your life. Since lack of exposure to light is often the trigger for SAD, getting more sunlight is an easy cure. It can be as simple as taking a 20-minute walk a few days a week, or just opening your curtains and blinds when you’re at your house. But if it’s typically cloudy where you live, another option you can consider is light therapy. It involves sitting a few feet from a special light therapy box which gives off bright light that mimics outdoor light.

One Hollins University study assessed the effects of bright light over five years on 73 women suffering from SAD. The women who were exposed to bright light experienced significant reductions in depression compared to those who were treated with placebo therapies.5

A dawn/dusk simulator might help you if you have to work at night, or if you spend a lot of time traveling to different time zones. It can simulate sunrise and sunset daylight patterns in your room, so you can wake up to simulated daylight, or sleep with dusk or starlight.

You can ask your doctor to prescribe a light-therapy box or dawn/dusk simulator, or you can find them online or at a local pharmacy. Prices typically vary from $100-$500.

2. Eat foods rich in omega-3s, vitamin B, vitamin C and especially vitamin D. These nutrients can help elevate your mood. Here are some guidelines:

Vitamin
Food
Supplement
Omega-3s wild-caught salmon, grass-fed beef, sacha inchi oil, nuts, leafy green veggies, eggs and avocados 2-5 grams a day
Vitamin C citrus fruits, green pepper, broccoli, kale, brussels sprouts, steak and oysters 500 mg twice a day
Vitamin B1 asparagus, romaine lettuce, mushrooms, spinach, green peas, tomatoes, eggplant and brussels sprouts 40 mg a day
Vitamin D cod liver oil, eggs, milk and orange juice fortified with vitamin D, sardines, tuna, beef liver, Swiss cheese 5,000 I.U.

3. Give your metabolism a challenge at least three or four times a week. To challenge your metabolism, you just need to exert yourself to the point where you have to stop and pant. This doesn’t necessarily mean high intensity. You might start by just going for a walk. Whatever you do, you want to exert yourself just a little bit more than you’re used to. And that’s the principle of my PACE program.

You start at your current fitness level, and gradually, incrementally increase your intensity. The key is to challenge your current rate of metabolic capacity. You do this by keeping the duration brief while you incrementally, progressively – a little bit at a time – further challenge your capacity.

Challenging your metabolism will boost “feel-good” hormones in your body – like serotonin and dopamine – that help you maintain a good mood. Short duration, progressively challenging workouts with PACE are all you need to increase your serotonin levels. And it only takes 12 minutes a day.

Other activities like yoga can relieve stress and help you relax. In fact, any activity you do that makes you feel good, and makes you feel self-actualized, is something you should try to get into your day.

4. Balance your breathing. One of the best ways to keep your body in a healthy rhythm even when the clock is springing forward or falling back is to practice breathing exercises.

When you breathe in, you’re exercising your body’s sympathetic (conscious) “fight-or-flight” system, which is over-stimulated in today’s world.

When you breathe out, it’s parasympathetic – relaxing – which is under-stimulated in our modern lives. This relaxation is even in our language. For example, “breathing a sigh of relief” or “waiting to exhale.”

One of the most effective ways to restore balance and stimulate your relaxing, para-sympathetic system is through cadence breathing. What you do is breathe in to a count of four, hold your breath to a count of seven, and exhale to a count of eight.

If you practice this for a few minutes each day, it will help you “breathe a sigh of relief,” so you can get back the balance nature intended.

To Your Good Health,

Al Sears, MD




1 Axelsson, Jóhann, Ragnarsdóttir, Sólveig, Pind, Jörgen, Sigbjörnsson, Ragnar, “Chromaticity of Daylight,” International Journal of Circumpolar Health 2004; 63:2
2 Whitehead, Barry S., “Winter Seasonal Affective Disorder: A Global, Biocultural Perspective,” University of Alabama
3 Hansen, V., Jacobsen, B. K., Husby, R., “Mental distress during winter. An epidemiologic study of 7759 adults north of Arctic Circle,” Acta. Psychiatrica Scandinavica August 1991; Volume 84, Issue 2, pages 137–141
4 Lee, David M., et al, “Association between 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels and cognitive performance,” J. Neurol. Neurosurg. Psychiatry 2008;165720
5 Flory, R., “A randomized, placebo-controlled trial of bright light and high-density negative air ions for treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder,” Psychiatry Res. May 15, 2010; 177(1-2):101-8

6 Runqing Lu1, Ginette Serrero, “Resveratrol … exhibits antiestrogenic activity and inhibits the growth of human breast cancer cells,” Journal of Cellular Physiology 1999; Volume 179, Issue 3, pages 297–304


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