Beating the Winter Blues Part III – 5 Natural Therapies to Bust those Winter Blues

Here’s a quick recap of the last two weeks of Beating the Winter Blues:

Part I: A description of what SAD & the winter blues are, who’s most at risk and the signs and symptoms.

Part II: Looking at the involvement of melatonin in SAD and the winter blues and 5 lifestyle tips to beat them.

Today we will explore nutritional supplements and herbal remedies to help you keep your sunny disposition and fight the winter woes.

1. Vitamin D

A lack of sun exposure means your body has a lower chance of producing vitamin D.  According to Statistics Canada, 40% of Canadians were below the cut off for sufficient vitamin D levels compared to 25% of Canadians in the summer. A direct association between vitamin D levels and risk of depression has been found. In studies of both healthy and depressed people, vitamin D supplementation was found to improve the depressive symptoms of SAD.

As a fat soluble vitamin, vitamin D is best taken in an oil based solution or with food.  Dietary sources of vitamin D include: fish, eggs, dairy and soy.  According to Health Canada, the 2012 updated Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) of vitamin D for those age 9-70 is 600IU per day, while those older than 70 years of age are recommended to take 800IU per day.  DRIs are reference for healthy values, but it is strongly recommended that you see a health professional to have your vitamin D levels measured to determine a supplementation dosage that is effective for you.

2. L-Tryptophan

Tryptophan is an amino acid that is the precursor to the production of serotonin (the “feel good” brain chemical ) and melatonin (our sleep promoting hormone). This is the amino acid found in turkeys that causes us to feel content and dopey after the Thanksgiving feast.  Studies have found tryptophan to be an effective treatment for depression, and in two small studies, tryptophan was found to be more effective for SAD than bright light therapy and placebo.

In addition to turkey, tryptophan is commonly found in seaweed, spinach, soy protein and egg whites. Due to tryptophan’s potential to increase serotonin it is advised that those taking antidepressant medication (specifically SSRIs) avoid taking tryptophan as it can elevate serotonin to dangerous levels.  Please speak to your health practitioner before taking tryptophan as a supplement.

3. Melatonin

For those following this series, there is no doubt that melatonin plays a large role in the occurrence of the winter blues and SAD, so naturally melatonin has made it to our list of supplements to consider. In a small study, patients with SAD taking melatonin between 3pm to 7pm for two weeks experienced a significant improvement in their depressive symptoms. As we’ve discussed melatonin is supposed to rise in the evening in response to darkness and suppress cortisol our “fight or flight” signal to allow our body’s to prepare for sleep.

Despite it’s somewhat central role, I prefer to reserve melatonin for those who haven’t seen any improvements with the appropriate lifestyle changes (see Part II). Melatonin can be quite powerful and can sometimes cause nightmares and feelings of being super drowsy or drunk in the morning. If this occurs it may be best to lower the dosage of melatonin.

4. Lemon balm

As one of my favorite herbs, lemon balm is well known as an antidepressant and anti-anxiety herb. It’s ability to calm irritable nerves and bowels seems to stem from its effect on the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA.  GABA helps to calm a noisy nervous system and promote relaxation. I particularly like lemon balm for its soothing scent. You can try lemon balm as a nice cup of tea before bed or through the day as a relaxing tea.

5. St John’s Wort

Having a strong reputation in the realm of natural antidepressants, St. John’s Wort seems to have its effect on mood by maintaining levels of serotonin in the brain. Studies show that St. John’s Wort is effective in treating mild to moderate depression and has fewer side effects than pharmaceutical antidepressants which makes it a good candidate for the treatment of SAD and the winter blues, however St. John’s Wort, like tryptophan is contraindicated if you are currently taking antidepressant medication.  Please consult your health practitioner before taking any herbal remedies.

So there you have it, 5 effective natural therapies for busting the winter blues.  If you have any questions regarding naturopathic medicine or the use of natural therapies please visit my website


Beating the Winter Blues PartII – 5 Lifestyle Changes to Help You Win the Winter Battle

polar-bear-sleeping_666_990x742As a continuation to last week’s “Beating the Winter Blues Part 1”, in this blog we will look at the relationship between light, melatonin, sleep and mood.  Included, are 5 easy, realistic changes you can make to prevent and manage the winter blues to thrive till spring.

Next week we will look at supplements and herbs that benefit sleep, and mood during the winter season.



Melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep, is regulated by light and darkness. The night time darkness allows us to produce more melatonin and get sleepier, while daytime light suppresses melatonin and allows us to feel more awake.

Because our bodies and biological clocks are tuned to the rising and setting of the sun through hormones like melatonin, during the winter, as night approaches earlier we tend to feel drowsy earlier, while in the gloomy winter mornings it becomes harder to get up.

Establishing a healthy sleep regimen that gives consistent signals to our biological clocks allows us to achieve better rest, wake up more refreshed and feel less doom despite the winter gloom.

5 ways to establish a healthy sleep regimen

1.  Take a walk: This is an easy, cheap and effective way to get more sun exposure during the day to ward of the winter depression, plus it has the added benefit of helping you get more exercise. In fact, A study published in the Journal of Affective Disorder has found that natural light exposure in the form of a 1 hour morning walk was able to improve symptoms of depression associated with SAD when compared with artificial light therapy.

2. Establish regular bedtime hours.  According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, the most important hours for rest and restoration are between 10:00pm to 2:00am, So decide on a bedtime that is realistic for you (ideally before 11pm) and go to bed at that time consistently.

night tv3. Turn off your electronic devices and reduce your screen exposure 1-2 hours before bed.  This is one habit that I am personally guilty of and is common amongst my patients. Exposure to light emitted from the screens of TVs, ipads, computers and phones suppresses melatonin and really mess with our sleep and mood.  Studies in Sweden, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Finland have all found a link between late night electronic use, sleep disturbance, depression and lower measures of well-being.  In light of this (pun intended) try to keep your pre-bedtime screentime to a minimum.

4. Start winding down 30 minutes to 1 hour before bed.  Some great alternatives to late night screen time include taking a warm bath, breathing exercises or meditation, light reading and/or listening to some gentle music.

Note: For those who insist on sending out a last minute email or playing a final round of candy crush, Twilight by Urbanandroid is an app that provides a filter for blue light (a wavelength of light that suppresses melatonin and conflicts with our biological clocks) to support healthy sleep.

5. Darken your bedroom.  Not only is screen exposure disruptive of sleep, so is ambient light. Even a small amount of light (ex. Flashing power lights or glowing alarm clock numbers)can disrupt melatonin production and potentially interrupt sleep. Use blackout curtains and block excess light at night.

Making change is never easy, so start small by choosing one or two of the 5 recommendations and build a healthy sleep routine gradually.  Happy snoozing!

Sophie, ND


Stay tuned next week for supplements and herbs that help beat the winter blues!



Beating the Winter Blues – Part I

winter bluesAs the temperature drops and the days become shorter, it has become more of a struggle for me to get going in the mornings. I’ve also noticed the energy around me; that of my patients and the office, beginning to lag.

Why does the summer buzz suddenly fizzle with the approach of winter?

Though it is experienced by many, the cause of “winter blues” and SAD is not clear, there seems to be a relationship between sun exposure, our biological clocks and the neurotransmitters (chemical signals) in our brains.  Studies show that for 15% of SAD sufferers, bright-light therapy is beneficial supporting the idea that SAD may be linked to sun exposure or the lack thereof.

The winter blues can be defined as general low mood experienced during the fall and winter season. Though it may cause discomfort, it does not interfere with daily activities. SAD, is a more severe form of the winter blues and can be a debilitating condition affecting one’s personal and professional life.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), 15% of Canadians experience the winter blues, while 2-3% of Canadians suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Typically SAD is more likely to develop in people over 20, is more common in Northern countries, affects more women than men, and is a greater risk for those who work shift work and for people living in urban centres where exposure to natural light is reduced.

Symptoms of SAD include, but are not limited to:
  • decreased energy & fatiguewinter blues2
  • hypersomnia (tendency to oversleep)
  • difficulty concentrating
  • change in appetite
  • craving for sweet or starchy foods
  • weight gain
  • irritability
  • avoidance of social situations
  • feelings of anxiety and despair

If you or anyone you know may be experiencing the symptoms above follow my blog next week to learn about ways to improve sleep and mood during the winter season.

If you can’t wait to learn about natural solutions to beating the winter blues, or you’d like to meet one on one for a free 15 minute naturopathic consultation, call (416) 281- 0640.

Upcoming talk: Digestion & Your Health

good-digestionThere’s no question that a balanced diet and good digestion are key to a healthy life.

Join me February 8th at 2:00pm 
for a talk on: 

              Digestion & Your Health

In this presentation we will learn how our digestive system functions, look at common digestive complaints and explore natural ways of treating and healing the gut.
Admission: $3
Delta Hotel (Markham)
50 East Valhalla Dr. (Hwy 7 and Hwy404)
Markham, ON


A Happy, Stress-Free Holiday – Part 4: Setting up for a happy new year

As each year completes its cycle I too, complete my own series of reflections on my successes, disappointments and convictions to live a better new year.  Despite my steely resolve at the start of each January, every December ends with a vague sense of unfulfilled potential.

This blog is for those who are sick of the revolution of incomplete new year vows and year end regrets. By reading and completing the following points you should have a basic outline for mastering your goals this new year by the end of this blog.

1. Name your goal.  What is your top goal this new year? By naming the one, most important goal, you pool your resources to achieving this top goal. Having successfully accomplished it, you can then target other goals with a greater sense of confidence.

My top goal is to __________________________________________________________.

(Ex. My top goal is to live a healthier life).

2. Know your “why”. By clarifying why we want to achieve a goal, it makes the goal more personally relevant.  The “whys” behind our goals also act as the motivational drive that keeps us going when the going gets tough.

Note: Intrinsic goals for self improvement (ex. personal growth, meaningful relationships) are more likely to be under your control and can help build a sense of confidence and well-being. In comparison, extrinsic goals are reliant on outside factors (ex. money, beauty, fame). Though they can be a great source of motivation, they are also more likely to disappoint, especially when you are basing your motivators on a comparison to an outside factor beyond your control (ex. looking like Taylor Swift).

My top goal is to __________ because ___________, ___________, and ___________.

(Ex. My top goal is to live a healthier life because I want to look like Taylor Swift.  — extrinsic).

(Ex. My top goal is to live a healthier life because I want to travel without debility. –intrinsic). This is a personal goal of mine because my chronic joint pain has interfered with many of my positive experiences.

3. Break it down. Having a lofty goal such as “living a healthier life” can be difficult to accomplish unless you reduce it into realistic “mini-goals” more easily achieved.  What are some mini-goals that can help you reach your ultimate goal?

To achieve my goal of __________, I will ____________,   ___________, and ___________.

(Ex. To achieve my goal of living a healthier life, I will eat a healthier diet, exercise, and relax).

4. Break it down some more. If your mini-goals aren’t specific enough, make them more specific and attainable.

To achieve my mini-goal of _________, I will __________, ___________, and ________.

(Ex. To achieve my mini-goal of eating a healthier diet, I will make my meals home cooked, I will eat 5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day and I will drink 8 glasses of water each day).

5. Make it realistic.  If your goal is something completely out of your comfort zone it will more likely deter you from trying. Create a goal that makes sense to you and word it to work for you.

(Ex. I will drink 8 glasses of water each day vs. I will drink 1 glass of water in the morning, one before each meal and one glass at night.)

6. Make it fun. Create self-challenges to capitalize on your competitive side.

(Ex. Take a sip of water every time I hear my name called, or every time the phone rings.  Or aim to finish a 1L bottle of water by the end of the work day, then increase it to 1.5L)

7. Commit yourself to your goal. Some things are more easily said than done, by committing yourself to your goal you are more accountable and more likely to carry them out.  Some great ways to commit yourself is to write out a contract to yourself or to make your intentions public so that you are bound to what you’ve told others.

When writing your self-contract, be sure to incorporate the points above and make the contract realistic for yourself. Include dates for each mini-goal you’d like to achieve and sign it as you would any official document.

8.  Recognize your successes and don’t let slip-ups discourage you.  There is no perfect path to success, there will be mistakes and points of weakness.  Don’t forget to praise yourself for the successes each day and to recognize the steps you’ve taken towards your goal, no matter how small (even if it is drinking just one glass of water more than usual instead of your goal of 8).

A big thank you to all those who’ve followed me and supported me with my venture as a blogger.  I wish you all a happy holiday and new year.  I look forward to sharing more on health and naturopathic medicine. See you in 2014!

A Happy, Stress-Free Holiday Series:

Part 1: Knowing when you’re stressed

Part 2: Control your stressors:  Creating change and avoiding over-indulgence

Part 3: Handling holiday stress

Part 4: Setting up for a happy new year 

A Happy, Stress-Free Holiday – Part 3: Handling Holiday Stress

nutrition for stressLast week we discussed ways to change, reduce and control holiday stressors.  This week we’ll look at ways to strengthen your body’s ability to deal with the impact of holiday stressors that can’t be avoided.

The body’s main stress management hormone cortisol, is produced by our adrenal organs  Cortisol is released in response to stress. It increases blood sugar to fuel our muscles for fight or flight and shuts down non-essential rest and digest functions.  Cortisol is necessary to prepare our body for stress in the short-term, but in excess over the long-term, it can throw off hormonal balance impacting reproductive, digestive, immune and metabolic functions.

Below are some tips for protecting your body against the negative effects of stress naturally.


1. Reduce sugar: cortisol works against insulin (the hormone that lowers blood sugar) and if increased for long periods, cortisol can cause blood sugar dysregulation increasing risk of diabetes, metabolic syndrome and inflammatory conditions in the body. In order to avoid adding fuel to the fire, limit excessive sugar intake and think twice before you polish off that tin of Christmas sugar cookies.

2. Choose magnesium rich foods:  Magnesium is a mineral that helps to relax tense muscles and prevent or reduce migraine headaches. It is needed for over 300 metabolic processes that regulate blood pressure, blood sugar levels, protein synthesis and proper nerve and muscle functions.  Foods rich in magnesium include: almonds, spinach, peanuts, cashews, soy milk and black beans[1]

3. Incorporate foods with B vitamins:  As stress increases, so does your body’s demand for nutrients.  This is especially true of the B vitamins which play a significant role in the function of our nervous system.  Holiday libations can be particularly hard on our vitamin B1 supply, while holiday stress can increase the adrenal gland’s need for vitamin B5.  Anxiety, depression and mood disorders are commonly associated with B6 deficiency, while a B12 deficiency can lead to nervous system symptoms such as tingling, poor memory and concentration, and fatigue.  Though many people require supplementation with a good B complex, foods commonly rich in the B vitamins include:

B1 (thiamine)[2]
  • Beef liver, pork, egg, beans and peas, nuts and seeds
B5 (pantothenic acid)[3]
  • Beef liver, meats, poultry corn, cauliflower, kale, broccoli, tomatoes, avocado, legumes, egg yolk, sweet potato, salmon
B6 (pyridoxine)[4]
  • Chickpeas, beef liver, tuna, salmon, chicken breast, turkey
B12 (cobalamine)[5]
  • Beef liver, clams, fish, meat, poultry, eggs, dairy products
Note: many grain products (such as cereals and breads) and nutritional yeasts are fortified with B vitamins


1. Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng): An herb commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine as a tonic for fatigue, stress and weakness, it is well known for its adaptogenic properties (helps the body adapt to stress). In addition to being great for stress, panax also lowers blood sugar levels and stimulates the immune system. This is one herb that seems to be tailor-made for the holidays.

2. Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera): Like panax, ashwaganda is best known for its adaptogenic properties and immune supporting ability. This herb has a long history of use in Ayurvedic medicine (a traditional medicine native to India), and one of my favorite herbs to use for promoting relaxation.

Rhodiola, shown to increase serotonin levels.

Rhodiola, shown to increase serotonin levels.

3. Golden root or rose root (Rhodiola rosea):  Well known for its ability to quell anxiety rhodiola, another adaptogenic herb, has been shown in studies to reduce irritability, fatigue and insomnia.  Its ability to reduce stress, anxiety and depression is often attributed to its effect on serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine neurotransmitters (the feel good chemical messengers of the brain).

It’s important to keep in mind that the above tips for managing holiday stress work best in conjunction with a lifestyle that promotes well-being.  The vitamins, mineral and herbs discussed here can be helpful but must be complemented with regular, healthy living habits which we’ll discuss next week for “part 4: setting up for a stress-less new year” of the “Stress-free Holiday Series”. See you next week!

Part 1: Knowing when you’re stressed

Part 2: Control your stressors:  Creating change and avoiding over-indulgence

Part 3: Handling holiday stress

Part 4: Setting up for a stress-less new year (next week)

[1] National Institutes of Health.  Office of Dietary Supplements. Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Magnesium. [internet] 2013 Nov 24 [cited 2013 Dec 19]. Available from:
[2] National Institutes of Health, Medline Plus. Thiamin. [internet] 2013 Oct 31 [cited 2013 Dec 19]. Available from:
[3] Ehrlich SD. Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic Acid). University of Maryland Medical Center. [internet] 2013 Aug 5 [cited 2013 Dec 19]. Available from:
[4]National Institutes of Health.  Office of Dietary Supplements. Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Vitamin B6. [internet] 2011 Sep 15 [cited 2013 Dec 19]. Available from:
[5] National Institutes of Health.  Office of Dietary Supplements. Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Vitamin B12. 
[internet] 2011 Jun 24 [cited 2013 Dec 19]. Available from: