I moved from New York City to Canada in August 2016 and my inaugural winter was a catastrophe. I did not own a proper winter coat or waterproof boots and did not see the need for it either. Initially, I thought I can get away with a pair of normal winter boots and a jacket that I can combine with something warm and lighter underneath. “That should do the job, ” I thought. It starts getting significantly colder here in Ottawa at around November 1st and I realized quickly, that my winter outfit needs to be improved. My friend tells me I have to toughen up and stop fighting the cold because I cannot change it. He uses the words “embrace the cold” actually. Again, I chose to live here but I take freezing temperatures (anything – 25 Celsius) personally. “Why are you doing this to me, winter?”, I hissed into the ice-cold wind the other day while jogging along the canal. Whenever it is super cold but there is some sunlight during the day, I am fine. It becomes challenging when it is just gloomy for days, more snow accumulates that then turns into ice followed by more snow. “The good times are gone”, I said to my friend who told me that spring is just around the corner. He means well.
That first winter went on forever and I thought that this will be my last one in Canada. “I cannot do this anymore, ” I said to myself one morning in late March when I found out that another snow storm was around the corner. Then, some sort of miracle change happened and summer was here, just after one short week of spring. I am not exaggerating. This is Canada-weather at its best. During those long, cold months, I need something that cheers me up and makes me less depressed. Being indoors and not able to “play outside” makes me really sad.
According to research I have conducted, 2-3% of Canadians struggle with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) which is a type of depression. This sounds like a small percentage, but the disorder affects nearly a million Canadians (and one German). SAD typically occurs within the long fall and winter months when there is just an average of 2-4 hours of sunlight (if even) per day in comparison to spring or summer when there is an average of 8-10 hours. Without enough sunlight, Vitamin D (the “sunshine Vitamin) levels in the body are very low. Symptoms usually are a feeling of depression, low motivation, energy, and fatigue, anxiousness, change in appetite (weight gain or loss), poor concentration and sleep problems to just name a few.
So, why is sunlight so important? Vitamin D levels in the body are increased through sunlight as it is synthesized through the skin and then triggered by exposure to UVB (Ultraviolet B) radiation. Research that examined the relationship of Vitamin D to SAD has found that just one hour of light therapy or exposure to sunlight can dramatically reduce SAD. According to Haas (2006), Vitamin D regulates bone formation. If Vitamin D is low, blood levels of calcium and phosphorus decrease and the body pulls these minerals from the bones which then may create demineralized and weak bones.
The sunlight (or lack of it) can cause hormonal changes. To make this easily understandable: serotonin levels drop and melatonin (our sleeping hormone) increases. The pineal gland, which is situated just above our cerebellum at the same level as our eyes, is responsible to produce melatonin. So, if there is limited amount of sunlight we find ourselves starting to get more and more tired throughout the day. I supplement with this Vitamin D product (the active form of D is commonly known as D3 or cholecalciferol which is the best!) and it seems to help me get through these super long winters in Canada easier. Make sure to either calculate your optimal individual intake for Vitamin D if you know how to or ask a pharmacist. Of course, I take every opportunity to expose my face to the sun and eating an adequate amount of vitamin D-rich food such as fatty fish (salmon, tuna), eggs, etc.
Serotonin is a chemical produced by our nerve cells and acts as a messenger between cells. Usually, serotonin goes hand in hand with tryptophan (like peanut butter and jam), which is an essential amino acid and needed to produce serotonin. A what? Essential amino acids mean our bodies cannot make it and therefore we should eat/add it. Tryptophan also promotes calmness, sleepiness, and relaxation. Before taking or recommending supplements, I rather choose to get the same effect through eating tryptophan-rich foods such
Excercise. Other holistic approaches that help me get through this cold season are to exercise and to spend at least 30 minutes outside working out, especially if and when there is sunlight. Working out could just mean to take a faster-paced walk in the park if jogging is not your thing. Simply, just move and breathe in fresh air to reduce mental fatigue.
Essential Oils. I discovered Saje Pure Essential Oils a while ago and fell in love. It is a Canadian company that produces 100% essential oils. A Christmas gift to myself was their little pocket pharmacy with 5 essential oils good for stress release, eater’s digest, pain release, to strengthen the immune system as well as the ultimate peppermint headache oil. In several courses I have taken at The Institute of Holistic Nutrition, essential oils have been mentioned and their benefits explained. I use essential oils first instead of traditional drugs or medications; for example, peppermint oil as a headache remedy and lavender oil to sleep better and relax. I would like to share some essential oils that help me and are beneficial for Seasonal Affective Disorder:
- Peppermint oil: Benefits: refreshing, anti-inflammatory, mental-stimulating, cooling. Blends well with patchouli, lemon, cedar or rosemary.
- Lavender oil: Benefits: balancing, calming (mind and skin), mood-lifting, healing, decreases mood swings and insomnia. Blends well with lemon, cinnamon, pine, cedar, peppermint
- Rosemary oil: Benefits: physical and mental stimulant, revitalizing for skin, grounding. Blends well with cedar, peppermint, grapefruit
- Eucalyptus oil: Benefits: cooling, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, deodorizing, energizing. Blends well with pine and cedar (very good cold/flu remedy to inhale with, put under the nose to breathe more easily or put in the essential oil diffuser)
- Lemongrass oil: Benefits: Vitalizing, purifying, regenerating. Blends well with basil, cardamom, spearmint
- Mandarin oil: Benefits: relaxing, soothing, uplifting. Blends well with peppermint,
franincese, cedar, rose, lavender
Be happy. Be healthy.
Haas, E.M. (2006). Staying healthy with nutrition – The complete guide to diet and nutritional medicine. New York: Random House Inc.