As the seasons change, people living in more northern cities are subject to a decrease in sunlight and colder temperatures. Northerners are required to buy produce flown in from warmer climates, therefore lacking the richness in nutrients that we get through the summer months with our own produce. Work days feel longer as we experience higher levels of lethargy with fewer hours of sunlight. Many of the changes associated with the change of seasons, specifically that which occurs between October and December, are now the leading causes of a recurring depressive disorder called S.A.D. - or seasonal affect disorder. The symptoms include lethargy, lack of interest in social situations, weight gain, decreased motivation and difficulty concentrating (Melrose, S. 2015). But do not let this scare you. The powers of information and self-awareness are incredibly valuable at this time of year when it comes to staying on track and keeping up with your training and fitness goals. I will attempt to break down what S.A.D. is physiologically, and hopefully provide you with some tools and tricks to bio-hack this time of year thus helping you stay accountable to your fitness goals.
So what is SAD? As I mentioned in my opening paragraph, this is a recurring depressive disorder that affects 6% of Canadians (Melrose, S. 2015). The less severe and more common type, S-SAD, or the "winter blues", has been reported to affect 15% of all Canadians (Melrose, S. 2015). These disorders are simply a product of where we live in the world. As winter approaches, the hours and the quality of sunlight we get decrease every day leading up to the winter solstice. Therefore the farther you are from the equator, the earlier the onset of the symptoms (Iliads, C. M.D., 2013). The decrease in sunlight, decreases our levels of serotonin, (a neurotransmitter linked to our mood), and increases our melatonin levels (a hormone that regulates sleep cycles) (Melrose, S. 2015). In fact, as we experience fewer hours of sunlight, (or more hours of darkness), the release time of melatonin increases, so our bodies are flooded with melatonin, compared to the summer months (Roecklein, K. A., & Rohan, K. J., 2005). To add to that, because we are spending less time in the sunshine, our bodies are producing much less vitamin D, which aids in the production of serotonin (Melrose, S. 2015). Put all of these things together and you get a society that experiences more episodes of sadness, has decreased energy levels, has a hard time concentrating, struggles with lethargy, experiences withdrawal from social situations, and is consuming carbs and refined sugars to satisfy our comfort-food-cravings, leading to weight gain (Melrose, S. 2015).
So what can we do to combat this and ensure we do not fall off the fitness wagon? Right now the leading treatments are anti-depressants, light therapy, exercise, and counselling. I want to focus on light therapy, exercise, and nutrition. Nutrition is often forgotten in many treatment plans because medicine has usually focused on medicating issues, instead of making lifestyle changes first. I digress.
Light therapy is the use of a fluorescent, cold blue/ light blue light behind a UV shield for at 20-30 minutes every day. By exposing yourself to this kind of light promotes something called a phase shift (Iliads, C. M.D., 2013). This will switch off the production of melatonin, and encourage serotonin production thereby shifting us into a physiological state that is better equipped to take on the day - even if the actual Sun has not risen yet. There are “happy lights” available for purchase on amazon.ca and amazon.com. You want a 10,000 lux one if you can to maximize the effects of this treatment. The least expensive one I have found is around $75 CAD, but they can cost upwards of $200CAD.
The second treatment is exercise! Yes, moving our bodies more and promoting the natural production of serotonin is an excellent way to combat the winter blues. Not only does it produce serotonin while you are exercising, it can also keep serotonin levels high for several hours afterward (Grohol, J., 2016). Combining both aerobic and strength training can maximize these benefits and keep your mood up all day. So when you wake up and it is cold and dark and your mind is saying “stay, sleep in”, push through that, expose yourself to some quality light, and get yourself moving. You will feel better for it, and the rest of your day will be much easier to take on. Studies show that 30 minutes of exercise every day is enough to fend off the symptoms associated with SAD.
Last, but certainly not least: nutrition. The way you eat can have a huge impact on your mood and therefore you day-to-day motivation. In the winter months you crave comfort foods. These foods include rich, starchy carbs like breads and potatoes. Ancestrally, as the our bodies experienced fewer hours of sunlight, we would stock up on carbs and high-sugar foods to create large fat stores that we could survive off of through the winter months. Now that we are fortunate enough to not have to deal with the winter hardships that our ancestors did, we don’t need to bulk up the same way anymore. So with that said, it is important to maintain a healthy balanced diet that includes, fruits, vegetables, and quality protein sources that will provide us with all of the nutrients we need to stay happy and healthy (Iliads, C. M.D., 2013). To help with this it is recommended that we take a good quality vitamin D3 supplement every day to ensure we have enough stored in our bodies to support serotonin production, restful sleep, and general good health (5).
A few other suggestions I came across were to drink adequate amounts of water throughout the day. The winter months can be incredibly drying to our skin, and dehydration can be confused as hunger as well. Get your friends involved so that you are able to maintain a good social network throughout the dark months. Support from your peers can also help you hold yourself accountable to your fitness goals. Lastly, get outside when the sun in shining. Despite the fact that we receive less intense sunlight in the winter months, exposing yourself to 20 minutes of sunshine can be the boost your body needs to feel energized for the rest of the day!
Riri's Discoveries blog documents Riri's most recent research, her travel adventures, and her personal fitness journey.