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!




Have a Happy, Stress-Free Holiday – Part 2: Control your stressors: Creating change and avoiding over-indulgence

As the holidays roll closer and our schedules begin to fill, an important part of stress management is the ability to feel some control over how you spend your holdiay.  Part 2 of the “Stress-Free Holiday” series is about creating change to make your plans more manageable and your holiday more enjoyable.  Take some time today to:

1. Remember what’s important for YOUR holiday

holiday stress1

With so many tasks to complete, events to RSVP for, and sales to

capitalize on; it’s easy to be caught up with the details of creating the perfect holiday.  Take some time to think about what is most important to you this season and define the true meaning of the holidays for YOU:

I could not enjoy my holiday without:__________________________________________.

What I’m most looking forward to this holiday is:_________________________________.

This holiday I am most grateful for:____________________________________________.

2. Redefine your holiday traditions

Holiday decorating was something I enjoyed because we did it as a family. In the last few years I have done it alone. This year, instead of decorating solo, my family and I have decided to cook dinner together. We’ve lost some of the decorative twinkle, but regaining our time together as a family is more important to me.  Take some time to think about traditions that you and your family may have outgrown and list some alternatives that remain true to your holiday values.  Based on your answers to the questions above, do your holiday traditions align with what’s important to you?  Are there any traditions that used to be inspiring but have now become a chore?

Example:  This holiday, instead of putting up Christmas decorations alone, I will cook dinner together with my family because it allows me to spend time with my loved ones.

Your turn:  This holiday, instead of ___________________, I will ____________________ because it allows me to ______________________________________________________.

3. Enlisting Help

This tip isn’t just for the holidays, but for anyone who has a busy schedule and often finds themselves feeling overwhelmed.  It can be easy to get caught up in the “I have to do this, and I have to do that” holiday dialogue.  The easiest answer is to ask for help. For example, if you don’t have time to gift wrap, get someone to do it for you.  One great way is through Epilepsy Toronto’s gift wrapping campaign hosted by many malls in the GTA (why not help others in addition to helping yourself?).

This holiday I will ask for help with ____________________________________________.

4. Avoid over-indulgence

The holidays are often synonymous with indulgence.  With all the gift exchanges and dinners, it’s easy to buy and eat a little more than you should. To help decrease stress, consider changing the way you give gifts and the way you enjoy holiday meals. Too much can leave our financial senses and stomachs overwhelmed.

holiday stress

Gift giving

a)  Reduce the number of gifts you need to give by opting to do Secret Santa or a Christmas gift raffle instead of buying individual gifts.  This will help reduce holiday expenses without cutting down on holiday cheer.

b)  Consider setting a budget limit when you’re buying gifts.  Limits help clarify expectations for all involved and avoids the guilt of having spent too much or too little.

Holiday meal times

Overdoing it at the holiday buffet table can leave us with indigestion, weight-gain fears and guilt. Talk about stress! Use the following tips this holiday to keep your festive meals in balance.

a) Eat at home beforehand to avoid overdoing it at the party.

b) Limit your holiday meal to one trip through the buffet line and serve yourself one plate.

c) Be present with your food. Holiday parties can be the worst place to eat and digest. Between the festive chit chat and loud music, it can be hard to get into rest and digest mode.  Count the number of times you chew and take notice of the colors and flavours of the food you’re about to eat.  Mindful eating is linked to better satisfaction and satiation and lower likelihood of over indulging.

I hope this blog has inspired you to take charge and work towards being stress-free this holiday. Next week, we’ll discuss healthy and natural ways to help your body handle stress. Stay tuned!

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

Have a Happy, Stress-Free Holiday – Part 1: Knowing when you’re stressed

stressStress occurs when we face a real or perceived threat that forces our bodies to adapt in the face of increased demand.  Stress can be both good and bad.

Eustress (good stress) is short-term stress that acts as a motivational force and is often what we experience when meeting a deadline or studying for an exam.

Distress (bad stress) can be both short- and long-term and tends to affect us negatively.  We typically experience distress when we are confronted with a challenge that we can’t–or feel we can’t–cope with.  Causes of distress can be due to circumstances such as chronic illness, the death of a loved one, a car accident or job loss.

Many of us experience the burden of stress in different ways.  It can affect us cognitively, behaviourally, physically and emotionally.  It is important for us to tune into our bodies so that we can recognize when we’re stressed. Some examples of stress include1:

Cognitive symptoms Behavioural symptoms Physical symptoms Emotional symptoms
Memory problems
Inability to concentrate
Poor judgment
Anxious or racing thoughts
Constant worrying
Eating more or less
Sleep changes
Self isolation
Procrastination or neglecting responsibilities
Aches and pains
Diarrhea or constipation
Nausea, dizziness
Chest pain, rapid heartbeat
Loss of sex drive
Frequent colds
Irritability or short temper
Agitation, inability to relax
Feeling overwhelmed
Sense of loneliness and isolation
Depression or general unhappiness

What symptoms do you experience when you’re stressed?  Take a moment and fill in the following blanks

When I’m stressed my cognitive symptom(s) are: _________________________________________.

When I’m stressed my behavioural symptom(s)are: ______________________________________.

When I’m stressed my physical symptom(s) are: _________________________________________.

When I’m stressed my emotional symptom(s) are: ________________________________________.

Note these symptoms in the future when you’re overwhelmed.  Becoming aware of how your body experiences stress and learning to recognize your symptoms is the first step to dealing with stress healthily.  Only by becoming aware of our imbalances and the resulting discomfort, do we feel the need to change.

With increased holiday demands (gift shopping, being a gracious host, cooking feasts, attending multiple events), stress can build and really impact our health.  When we experience stress our body is thrown into sympathetic (fight or flight) mode which causes an increase of cortisol and adrenaline.  This then shuts down our parasympathetic system (rest and digest mode) resulting in2,3,4:

  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased blood sugar
  • Suppressed immune system
  • Reduced digestive function

When stress becomes chronic it can adversely affect our health placing us at risk for conditions such as:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Mental health issues (generalized anxiety, depression)
  • Diabetes and obesity
  • Inflammatory bowel issues
  • Chronic low functioning immunity leading to recurring bouts of colds/flus or infection

To prevent both the short term effects and the long-term health risks of holiday stress stay tuned for next week’s blog of the “Have a Happy Stress-Free Holiday” series.

Part 2: Control your stressors:  Creating change and avoiding over-indulgence (next week)

Part 3: Handling holiday stress

Part 4: Setting up for a stress-less new year

1.Smith M, Segal R, Segal J. Stress Symptoms, Signs & Causes: The effects of stress overload and what you can do about it [internet]. 2013  Nov; Available from:
2.Mayo Clinic. Stress symptoms: Effects on your body and behaviour. [internet]. 2013 Jun. [cited 2013 Dec 11]. Available from:
3.Segerstrom SC, Miller GE. Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System: a meta-analytic study of 30 years of inquiry. Psychol Bull. 2004 Jul; 130(4): 601-30.
4.Nakata A. Psychosocial Job Stress and Immunity: a systematic review. Methods Mol Biol. 2012; 934:39-75.
5.Marvar PJ, Harrison DG. Stress-dependent hypertension and the role of T lymphocytes. Exp Physiol. 2012 Nov; 97(11) 1161-7.
6.Yusuf S, et al. Effect of potentially modifiable risk factors associated with myocardial infarction in 52 countries (the INTERHEART study): case-control study. Lancet. 2004 Sep 11-17;364(9438):937-52.
7.Das S, O’Keefe JF. Behavioral cardiology: recognizing and addressing the profound impact of psychosocial stress on cardiovascular health. CurrAtheroscler Rep. 2006 Mar;8(2):111-8.
8.Heraclides A, Chandola T, Witte DR,  Brunner EJ. Psychosocial stress at work doubles the risk of type 2 diabetes in middle-aged women: evidence from the Whitehall 2 study. Diabetes Care. 2009 Dec;32(12):2230-5.

Look Forward to a Happy, Stress-Free Holiday!

As Christmas music blares while I mentally calculate a holiday discount; I can’t help but think that the holidays, as bright and glowy as they seem, can be a stressful time.  Company parties, family plans and Christmas shopping to boot, our schedules are as packed as the mall parking lots.  With all the hustle and bustle, this is a perfect time to hone our stress management skills and build our capacity to meet life’s ongoing demands.

Being busy should not equate to daily headaches, fatigue or a sense of overwhelming anxiety.  Listed below are some tips that will be discussed in the upcoming weeks on how you can look forward to a happy, stress-free holiday:


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

Follow my blogs through December, as I discuss different stress management strategies to survive the holiday hoopla. 

To wrap up the year on a healthy note please email me to schedule an appointment for your personalized treatment plan.  For more information about me, Sophia Ma, ND visit


The flu vaccine; clarifying the debate

According to Health Canada, flu season affects 10-25% of Canadians, typically beginning in November lasting through to April. While I agree with the Public Health Agency that prevention is necessary I believe there are more natural and effective ways of safeguarding against the flu while simultaneously strengthening your immune system.  This blog, though lengthy, details how our immune systems and vaccines work, and why getting the shot this flu season might not be as good as naturally supporting our immune systems.

The immune system & how it works

In order to fully understand how vaccines work we must understand how our own immune system operates. During infection, our main defensive line consists of T-cells, B-cells and macrophages.  Macrophages are our body’s surveyor, it samples various things in our environment and spits out fragments called antigens.

Our B-cells and T-cells then examines these antigens and if it’s not recognized as “self” raises the alarm. B-cells produce antibodies tagging the antigen as an “intruder”. Anything that looks like the “intruder” antigen is then destroyed.  While our body wages war, some of its best defenses are fever, mucous production and cough. Basically our body’s defenses is what makes you feel sick.

In addition to antibodies, memory T-cells are also produced.  Their job is to continue to circulate our body and stay on the lookout should the same virus or bacteria come back.  Memory T-cells allow our immune system to react almost immediately the second time it meets the same the bacteria or virus.  This helps to eliminate infection before we even know we’re sick.

Vaccines and their general role

If our bodies are pretty effective at dealing with infection, why then, do we need vaccines to take care of us?  Vaccines were created as a type of short cut.  By introducing parts of, or dead bugs into our body, vaccines are supposed to skip the part where you have to deal with being sick and fast forward to your bodies producing memory T-cells.  It’s not a completely perfect system though because your body will create some type of reaction to the antigen in the vaccine and often people will feel a little feverish after their flu shot.

So what’s the argument against the flu vaccine if it’s keeping us from having to feel sick?

Effectiveness – Since vaccines are produced based on predictions of which viral strains are about to hit, there is room for error.  According to Dr. Tom Jefferson, MD, coordinator of the Vaccine Field for the Cochrane Collaborative (a highly respected group that collects information on evidence based medicine): under ideal conditions (where the right strain of flu virus is predicted), of 33 people vaccinated only 1 person will be effectively protected from the flu.  Under average conditions, where there’s only a partial match between the actual infecting flu and the strain of flu in vaccines, only 1 person out of a 100 will benefit from the flu vaccine.

To read more on Dr. Jefferson’s report, check out effectiveness of vaccines in healthy adults:

Bias – In addition to the low effectiveness of vaccines, Dr. Jefferson says that the data currently touted by the government and medical community is based on studies privately funded by pharmaceutical companies and are likely skewed. In his words:

“Studies funded from public sources were significantly less likely to report conclusions favorable to the vaccines. The review showed that reliable evidence on influenza vaccines is thin but there is evidence of widespread manipulation of conclusions and spurious notoriety of the studies.”

Toxicity: Though most vaccines licensed in Canada do not contain thimerosal, the Public Health Agency of Canada admits that influenza vaccines (along with hepatitis B vaccines) do.  Thimerosal is a mercury based preservative used as an antifungal and antibacterial in vaccines.  Mercury is a toxic metal that can cause symptoms of memory loss, confusion, visual and sensory impairments and is harmful to the kidneys and digestive system.

Wondering what other toxins might be hiding in our vaccines visit:

Not allergy friendly:  Vaccines are grown on an egg medium and can cause serious reactions in those allergic to egg protein.  If you don’t react well to eggs and are keen on vaccines, make sure to check the medium that the vaccine is grown on.

Safety: According to the Vaccine Field for the Cochrane Collaborative; out of 206 studies on vaccines, only 6 studies address the issue of safety in vaccines.  6 studies!?!?  When it comes to an intervention that is so widely promoted to the public 6 studies does not suffice.

Though there are many reasons why people may want to rely on the flu vaccine to protect them this time of year, I hope my piece has provided some food for thought as people begin to line up for their annual flu shots. Take some time to do your own research and whether or not you decide to get vaccinated be sure to support your immune system. Regardless of whether your body has to  handle a flu antigen delivered through a needle or fight the real deal, be sure to keep your immune system healthy enough to protect you .

For tips on supporting your immune system naturally through flu season read: “It’s that Wonderful time of Year! Flu Season!”

For more information about Sophia Ma, ND please visit or schedule a 15 minute consult with her by email.

NOTE:  The information provided is not to be used as medical advice.  This blog is written from a personal viewpoint and I would encourage everyone to investigate both evidence for and against the flu vaccination before making your own decision about the flu vaccine.

My Purpose as a Naturopathic Doctor

There are many challenges to be faced when committing to a new relationship, but the biggest challenge is recognizing and sharing the expectations you have for yourself and the other party. This is true for all relationships including that of the doctor and patient.


This piece is dedicated to myself and my patients as a reminder of the intent I hold each time I engage in a therapeutic relationship.  Some may say that this should be obvious to a doctor, but even clear waters can be muddied and the simplest matters complicated.  I would like to use the personal guidelines outlined below as a beacon to help me stay true to my patients as an ND.

My purpose as a naturopathic doctor:

To provide hope for my patients.

To share knowledge so that my patients can effectively participate in their treatment.

To help my patients recognize their strengths so that they are inspired to advocate for their own health.

To create a space safe enough for my patients to explore their fears so that they are empowered to achieve true healing.

To ensure my patients leave each visit with a sense that they are cared for.

This is my purpose as a naturopathic doctor.  As I move forward in my career, I do not and cannot guarantee a cure but I aim to provide the next best thing:  Hope, care and health through knowledge, inspiration and empowerment.

In good health,

Sophia Ma, ND

A naturopathic doctor’s return to the blogging world

  Welcome back,

After a long hiatus I have returned to the wonderful world of blogging.  During the months away I’ve graduated from naturopathic medical school, survived an intense set of licensing exams and now am finally SOPHIA MA, ND ( cue: streamers and balloons)!


Never have I been more excited about my career as a naturopathic doctor. I have set to work lining up a series of interesting topics ranging from dealing with the flu to men and women’s health, diabetes to anti-aging.  I will be blogging weekly around a specific topic each month.  If there are topics that you are interested in reading about please feel free to comment and make a suggestion.

I’d also like to introduce my new website:  Here, you can check out the naturopathic services I offer and find the answers to your burning questions about naturopathic medicine.

I will be available at The Corrective Healthcare Group, Monday, Wednesday and Thursdays from 10:00am – 7:00pm.  To schedule an appointment please call (416) 281-0640 or email

Look out for my upcoming blog on my purpose as an ND.