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.