Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Dark Winter Days: How to beat SAD and other darkness-linked health issues

It's dark going to work, and dark when you come home. In the fall and winter, we experience fewer hours of daylight. This darkness has amazing effects on living things around us - just look at the yellow, orange and red leaves (or in your neck of the woods they may already be brown and on the ground). The dark days of winter have just as profound effects on our bodies as the leaves - such as changes to mood and sleep-wake cycles as well as cessation of vitamin D production.

Do You Feel Like Hibernating?
Mr. Sun helps to tell our body when it is time to be awake and active. When exposed to sunlight, sensors in our eyes send messages along a nerve pathway to the hypothalamus in the brain. From there, factors involved in determining if we feel awake or sleepy are controlled, as well as the body’s temperature and hormones. One of the major hormones that regulate our sleep-awake cycle is melatonin, produced by the pineal gland.  Melatonin is only produced during dark hours giving you a sleepy sensation, thus with fewer sunlight hours, and an increased use of artificial lighting during the fall our body can lose the natural day-night rhythm causing people to have trouble sleeping, or experience daytime drowsiness. 

Skip the Sunscreen 
At latitudes above 35°, there is minimal, if any, pre-vitamin D3 production in the skin as it doesn't experience much sunlight. Vitamin D is an important fat-soluble vitamin in the human body involved in bone health including calcium absorption in the gut, maintenance of blood phosphate levels, bone growth and remodeling by osteoblasts and osteoclasts. Researchers are also discovering links with vitamin D deficiency and diseases including some forms of cancer, autoimmune diseases, heart disease, rickets and osteoporosis. Get your D in! Vitamin D supplements are a great idea. Food wise - fortified milk and salmon are the best sources (of note, studies have found that wild salmon has 75-90% more vitamin D than farmed salmon.) 

It's a SAD Time of Year
Are you experiencing fatigue, oversleeping, overeating, weight gain, cravings, moodiness or depression? SAD is a type of depression that has a seasonal cycle, provoked by the decreased number of sunlight hours in a day. According to the Mood Disorder Society of Canada, 2-4% of Canadians suffer from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder).  How does this all work? Well, serotonin is converted into melatonin in the body – serotonin and melatonin are chemicals in your body that cause happiness and sleep. Research shows promising results for the use of light therapy, melatonin, vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids. Other SAD coping strategies include meditation and a healthy diet focusing on nutrient-rich foods such as green vegetables, cherries, mushrooms, nuts and seeds. 

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