Reframing seasonal affective disorder

By Carrie Bennett

Where I live, it is very common to hear this phrase around this time of year: “This weather makes me so depressed.” 10 million Americans are diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder. An additional 20% suffer a mild form of it. Should we be calling this a “disorder”? Can we reframe how the body responds to winter?

Winter brings about three marked differences from summer:

  1. Food scarcity
  2. Cold
  3. More darkness

Could these environmental cues mean we SHOULD feel more tired and have a greater desire to hunker down and rest? Picture winter 1,000 years ago in a northern latitude. Food would be scarce. Metabolically, my body would be looking to store away every little extra bit of food I hunted/found in the late summer/early fall in preparation for scarcity. Cold weather would dominate. I would have made a shelter to protect me from the worst of the snow and wind, but even then, my body would have to adapt to a much colder environment. Daylight would have a much shorter window. This means the amount of melatonin my body makes would be much more than in the summer.

Is it possible that the body has very important programs it needs to run in the winter to thrive? YES!

Pathways such as:
Pgc1alpha: mitochondrial health, lowers reactive oxygen species (ROS), NRF2 activation (cell protection pathway)
Ucp1: burn fat to make body heat, improved insulin sensitivity
Foxo3: promotes longevity, autophagy, apoptosis
AMPK: improves insulin sensitivity, burns fat

When do these pathways get a chance to exert their effect? During sleep, when melatonin (a master repair hormone) is elevated. Hence why winter is also dark to promote more melatonin and more sleep.

Now, here’s my advice to feel good during winter (say good-bye to seasonal affective disorder) and maximize all these programs :

  1. Get as much morning sunlight, especially when UVA is present, into your eyes as possible to boost serotonin, dopamine and endorphin levels
  2. Get cold-adapted with intermittent cold exposures, which boosts norepinephrine, leading to better focus and cognition and fat-burning capabilities
  3. Block blue light after sunset and go to bed early. Allow your body more time for rest and repair

Light hygiene after dark

If you are going all out with protecting your circadian rhythm, this is what optimal light hygiene looks like when you are using a computer at night: minimal lighting, low brightness, no blue, and little to no green wavelength. To take this photo, I needed to increase the screen’s colour temperature and brightness; otherwise, it […]
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Darkness is a necessity

When was the last time you slept in a pitch-black room? What we think of as a dark room is actually bright compared to the level of darkness the body desires. Here is a test: If you can see your hand 12 inches in front of your face in your bed at night, then your […]
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Winter is catabolic

In our modern world, we re-create an eternal, never-ending summer with central heating, lightbulbs, screens, and carbs imported from around the world (ie bananas or pineapples in winter). Although no one really likes it cold and dark and without bread and chocolate, there are many health benefits to embracing the season of winter. Winter is […]
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