How to Be Happy: Beat the Winter Blues

Sarah Treleaven seeks out someone who has gained wisdom and insight into how to live a happier, more fulfilling existence and gets their best advice.

This time: Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that hits during the fall and winter months. Here, Dr. Jonathan Prousky, Chief Naturopathic Officer at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine, discusses how SAD affects the lives of Canadians, and how nutrition and botanical medicines can be used to eliminate symptoms.

Q: Let’s start from the beginning. What is naturopathy and why is it relevant?

A: Naturopathic medicine is a branch of medicine that is a regulated health profession that uses various modalities to treat and prevent illness. Those modalities include everything from orthomolecular medicine to botanical medicine to lifestyle counseling and even homeopathy.

Q: What is orthomolecular medicine?

A: It’s a new paradigm in treating patients, and it’s phenomenal because you’re using nutrients and natural substances that are found in the body – like vitamins, minerals, amino acids, essential fatty acids – to not just prevent disease but also treat disease. When your doctor treats you for a headache, he might give you aspirin. When an orthomolecular practitioner treats you for SAD, he or she can use a variety of different substances to eliminate the symptoms. We used to think of nutrition, or orthomolecular substances, as just a way to treat deficiencies, but now it’s using nutrition in the way that we use drugs to help people.

Q: How is it differentiated from the more conventional medical field?

A: About two-thirds of naturopathic medicine is similar to mainstream medicine. Where it diverges is in its philosophy, and that’s a fundamental difference. Instead of treating a symptom, naturopathic doctors try to address all of the different causes of the underlying illness and help somebody improve their health or prevent disease.

Q: What is SAD?

A: SAD [is a form of depression] that occurs during the fall and winter season, and the symptoms remit once the season is over. But people shouldn’t think about treating SAD just during fall and winter; they should find someone who can prescribe them natural substances to eliminate it. Even though SAD has very defined criteria, I do think people should be thinking about what they can do all year round to reduce those symptoms.

Q: What are the major symptoms?

A: People tend to feel low-energy and not want to get out of bed; they have depression; they tend to overeat and have weight issues; and they just have this persistent sense of malaise and lack of wellness. To me, it definitely needs to be treated. It’s something that people try to do on their own, but I don’t think they can actually help themselves.

Q: What about your sex drive?

A: When someone has SAD, their libido, desire for sex and even their ability to perform sex is going to be affected.

Q: If you suspect you have SAD, what should you do?

A: If you have SAD you should find a qualified orthomolecular practitioner who can evaluate you and in doing the evaluation the doctor would try to individually find different substances in the body, like vitamins and minerals, to help your condition. One of the most commonly used substances is vitamin D3, which is in the news now. We know that the levels of vitamin D in the blood tend to decline during the winter season, and, at that point, people who are very vulnerable to SAD can have a depressive episode.

When we look at SAD, we know that serotonin metabolism can be affected, and one of the good orthomolecular substances to increase serotonin levels in the brain is something known as 5HTP (5 Hydroxy Tryptophan). It’s an over-the-counter substance that’s naturally found in the body. Serotonin is a feel-good neurotransmitter; it has antidepressant affects, reduces cravings for carbohydrates, makes us feel better about ourselves, and so it’s an important substance.

Another great supplement that can be prescribed is fish oil. And, again, that’s all over the news these days. Fish oils have a very interesting compound in them called EPA – it’s an Omega 3 fatty acid. It’s naturally found in the body, but you can’t really generate enough for it to have an effect on depression.

Q: What about light therapy?

A: I often ask patients if during the fall and winter season they get more depressed, and then I ask if, because it’s dark out, they feel that the depression increases. Clearly, there is a relationship between light and someone feeling good, and darkness and someone feeling bad. We know that if we expose people to bright light – because some of the belief about seasonal affective disorder is that there’s a deficiency of good, bright light – in the morning for anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes every day, that could help reduce the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.

Q: What about proper nutrition?

A: That’s just part of overall good health. Someone has to have a very good diet before these substances are going to have a maximal benefit. If someone’s eating crap, then these substances won’t have the same effect. In terms of dietary advice, someone should eat a diet that has lots of different colors in it; non-perishable foods are very important – you want to use foods that actually have an expiration date and not something that can survive a nuclear war; lots of fruits and vegetables, and particularly dark green leafy vegetables; you want to avoid saturated fats; drink plenty of water; and reduce refined sugars. That can go a long way toward helping people.

For more information check out Dr. Prousky’s web site: