Game of Thrones said it best: winter is coming. As temperatures fall and daylight hours decrease, it can be tempting to curl up on the couch and hibernate until spring. Healthy habits like exercising, eating well and meeting up with friends and loved ones tend to get shuffled aside in favour of TV and takeout. Those tendencies are not only bad for our waistline, but can also be bad for our mental health. A recent study showed that reduced exposure to the sun promotes fat storage.
And it’s estimated that 15% of Canadians will experience at least a mild case of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), now known as Depression with Seasonal Pattern, in their lifetime. So, this year we thought it made sense to gather some of our experts to help you prevent some of the negative effects that winter has on us with a few simple, healthy habits. Here, Dr. Peter Nord, Medcan’s chief medical officer; Dr. Andrew Miners, clinical director of sports medicine; and Joanna Stochla, registered dietitian, share their tips.
“Serotonin helps to improve mood, promote sleep and reduce appetite,” explains Stochla. Serotonin, the brain chemical that works to regulate our mood, drops significantly during the winter. That’s because serotonin production is tied to exposure to sunlight. To compensate, we tend to consume more carb-laden comfort foods, like shepherd’s pie and mac n’ cheese. “Cold weather cravings tend to be carbohydrate rich, and this may be tied to the brain’s production of serotonin,” Stochla says. Simple carbs—white, starchy bread and potatoes—give us that immediate serotonin boost, “but it’s only a temporary fix,” she explains. Eventually the effects wear off, leaving us to feel even more sluggish than before.
Veggies can contribute to overall improved health, but once temperatures drop, we’re less inclined to reach for cold, raw veggies and salads. And since local, fresh produce is less readily available, it’s often easier to instead opt for warm, hearty meals. Stochla offers this tip for incorporating veggies into your diet. “Instead of a cold mango smoothie, take advantage of butternut squash soup when it’s in season, or add baby spinach to your chili or stew to get your dark leafy greens.” She also suggests putting a vegetable twist on a classic: swap pasta for spiralized zucchini noodles, or trade white rice for cauliflower rice. “You can still enjoy the foods you love,” Stochla says. “Just try making them less carb-heavy.”
Vitamin D is another effective way to ease seasonal depression. “Researchers have found that many people who experience Seasonal Affective Disorder have low levels of Vitamin D,” says Stochla. “During the fall and winter months, the sun’s UVB rays just aren’t strong enough to produce Vitamin D naturally in our skin.” Vitamin D, in addition to being linked to mood, is also important for our bone health and immune system—two more good reasons to supplement. Stochla says Medcan dietitians generally advise taking 1000-2000 IUs of Vitamin D per day, typically through supplementation because good food sources of the vitamin are limited. You can find Vitamin D in fatty fish like salmon or sardines, but three ounces of salmon only provides about 450 IUs of Vitamin D, and a can of sardines only about 100 IUs.
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In warm weather, it’s easy to spend time outside: riding your bike to work or meeting a friend for a walk doesn’t feel like a chore. As temperatures drop, it’s no surprise it’s hard for most of us to get motivated to get outdoors. But moving your body in fresh air has been shown to provide psychological and physical health benefits like improved mood and heart health.
Scandinavians can teach us a thing or two about embracing winter. “In Norway, they have a saying: “There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing,” says Dr. Nord. Layer clothing so that you’re dressed appropriately, no matter the weather. As you start to warm up, you can remove layers, he says. And make the most of what Canadian winters have to offer: try skiing, skating, or snowshoeing—or find an activity you love to do when it’s warm and invest in the right clothing and equipment to continue it year-round. “It’s about trying to maximize what you can do when your options are a little bit more limited,” Dr. Nord adds.
Dr. Andrew Miners seeks out friends to help him stay motivated to exercise outside.
“Last fall, I started meeting with a group of friends three mornings a week to work out together, and when I did my Annual Health Assessment, I had some of the best metrics I’ve had in over four years,” he says. It’s also important to warm up before exercising. “Human tissue is less flexible and pliable when it’s cold, so before starting a vigorous activity, it’s a good idea to do a bit of a warm-up—especially on the cold days.”
Exercising when it’s cold out can burn more calories than when it’s warm. Studies have shown that this is because the body is working harder to keep its core temperature regulated—and that kicks your metabolism into overdrive. And winter workouts aren’t just for your physical benefit. “I did a podcast with Dr. Jennifer Heisz, director of McMaster University’s NeuroFit Lab, talking about the mental benefits for depression and anxiety from exercise. With Depression with Seasonal Pattern, it becomes that much more important to maintain our exercise levels,” Dr. Miners adds.
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One in 20 Canadians will experience Depression with Seasonal Pattern, so at Medcan we’re cognizant of the real risk of depression and anxiety that comes with shorter, colder days. Studies indicate a strong correlation between major depressive episodes and seasonal variation in Canada specifically, with 70% more people reporting depressive episodes in January compared to August.
Feeling down, irritability, weight gain, and excessive sleep—these are all common symptoms of seasonal depression. “One of the hallmarks of Depression with Seasonal Pattern that we always ask clients about is: have you lost interest in the things that you really enjoyed doing before?” says Dr. Nord. Rather than chalking your low mood up to waking up on the wrong side of the bed, try to monitor how you’re feeling and when; consider keeping a journal to see if your symptoms follow any discernible pattern. It also makes sense to speak with a physician about symptoms you’ve noticed; various treatments now exist, and one may be right for you. “SSRIs—selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors—are medications that work on our serotonin levels, and have been shown to rebalance what’s happening with neurotransmitters in our brain, specifically at this certain time of the year,” says Dr. Nord. “And things like cognitive behavioural therapy, exercise and light therapy have all been shown to be helpful.”
Although light therapy has been in use since the early 1900s, and has actually been popular in Nordic countries since the 80s, it has only gained popularity in North America over the last 20 years. Studies have shown it’s a convenient, beneficial treatment for seasonal depression. “A couple of decades ago, we discovered that lack of light was the problem [concerning Depression with Seasonal Pattern],” says Dr. Nord. “And [there was this] thought that if we added light, maybe that would solve the problem. And it does work. After a couple weeks of a standard light therapy regime, people end up feeling a lot better.” To benefit, you need to use it consistently; 30 minutes, twice a day, every day has produced amazing results with no side effects.”
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Find your motivation
It’s important to find a reason to get up and go through the health and wellness routine that you work so hard to perfect during the warmer months. A recent study showed that setting goals is linked to higher rates of happiness, so what’s yours? Maybe it’s an annual family ski trip that you want to be in shape for or just simply enjoying (rather than dreading) the cold season. Whatever your reason, here at Medcan we have a team of professionals in a wide range of disciplines who can help you design and execute a holistic, proactive cold weather wellness plan to make this your best winter ever.
If you’d like to see how Medcan can help you live well, for life (even when it’s cold out), contact one of our dedicated client service specialists today at email@example.com or 416.350.3621.