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How To Improve Sleep, Ease Depression And Boost Immunity

As we continue to move through fall and into winter, you might find yourself struggling- mentally and physically.

We’re dealing with….

Shorter days.

Less sunlight.

Changes in weather.

Difficulties that come with the holiday season.

These can all impact our mood, stress levels, ability to cope with everyday situations, and even our sleep and diet.

I like to think of our mental wellness as made up of three major parts: physical, thoughts, and life.

When we’re talking about the ‘physical,’ I’m referring to things like movement, exercise, sleep, and a healthy diet. 

For ‘thoughts,’ this includes the knowledge, beliefs, values, perceptions, self-esteem, confidence, etc., that we have for ourselves and the world around us. 

And ‘life’ comprises our environment- our family, friends, relationships, work, everyday stressors, etc.

When we neglect one of these components, it is impossible to achieve wellness in other aspects of our lives. The truth is, there’s a triangular relationship between the physical, thoughts, and life; when one area suffers, the rest also suffer.

So, with these three components in mind, today we’re talking about how to nourish your body and mind so you can cope this season and achieve optimal mental wellness- especially if you struggle with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), depression, or low/compromised immunity. 

Chronic Depression and Seasonal or Episodic Depression

I want to start by acknowledging that if fall and winter are tough on you and your mood- you are not alone

In fact, two to three percent of Canadians will experience SAD in their lifetime, while depression affects one in eight Canadians at some point in their lives. 

Overall, the increase in depression and SAD in the fall and winter months is thought to be due to a lack of sun/vitamin D exposure, shorter days, and isolation due to weather. Different populations are more susceptible to SAD. For example, for individuals with darker skin, this is because of the higher amount of melanin (the substance in your body responsible for pigmentation of skin, hair, etc.) in the body which impacts the reaction to activate vitamin D. 

Some strategies to combat depression, SAD, and low mood can include:

  • Taking a Vitamin D supplement: since we generally have less sun exposure in fall and winter (a natural source of vitamin D), taking a vitamin D supplement can be beneficial as research has shown it to be linked with mood regulation and decreasing the risk of depression. 
  • Light therapy: this can also be utilized as a replacement/additive to compensate for reduced sun exposure. Using a special lamp, sometimes called “SAD lamps,” simulates natural outdoor light!
  • Adjusting your diet: certain foods can affect the release of “happy chemicals” in the brain- serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. Serotonin enhances feelings of calmness, improves your mood, and reduces depression; this chemical is released after eating carbohydrates (i.e., fruit, dairy, starch, and sugar). Dopamine enhances concentration and alertness and is released after eating proteins like meat, dairy, and legumes
  • Counselling: learn healthy ways to cope and build healthy behaviours into your life (i.e., physical activity, good sleep hygiene) 
  • Medications: if your symptoms are more severe, perhaps an anti-depressant would be beneficial! Anti-depressants help lift your mood, making other areas of struggle easier to tackle- like physical activity and maintaining a healthy diet! 

I have a SAD lamp/lightbox on my desk at work; I have it on for about 20 minutes every day, especially since my workspace has no windows. I’ve found this works wonders not only on my mood when I’m at work but how I feel when I leave work at the end of the day, which affects how I behave when I get home! In general, I also feel less stressed when taking care of myself, including incorporating wellness practices (like getting more light exposure!) into my work and home lives. 

How does STRESS play a role in all of this?

Stress, in general, is a natural response to challenging situations; it is essentially unavoidable. However, there are different types of stress, some of which are more severe than others. First, let’s talk about the difference between regular stress and traumatic stress. 

Regular stress is a normal reaction to positive and negative situations, like getting a new job or writing an exam. 

Traumatic stress is a normal reaction to an abnormal event, such as a violent act or serious injury; while symptoms of traumatic stress usually get better over time, some individuals experience intense symptoms and prolonged stress, which can lead to the development of stress-related illnesses like PTSD- post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Prolonged exposure to stress can negatively affect your physical and mental health. Psychological impacts of prolonged stress can include anxiety, irritability, fatigue, insomnia, etc. The physical manifestations of prolonged stress include high blood pressure, headaches, an upset stomach, and even reduced immunity!

Stress and Your Immune System

Your immune system protects your body from foreign invaders like bacteria and infection. It also responds to signals from other systems in your body, like your nervous system. For example, when you’re stressed or have experienced trauma, this signals a fight, flight, or freeze response in your brain, impacting your immune system function. 

Evidence-based research indicates a link between various stressors and lowered immunity. Acute stressors (i.e., writing an exam or public speaking), chronic stressors (i.e., having to drive through traffic every day), and distant/historical stressors (i.e.witnessing something traumatic as a child) can all take a toll on our body’s natural immune response, leaving you susceptible to illness, feeling fatigued and potentially experiencing lower moods as a result. 

How Can You Boost Your Immune System?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Harvard Health suggest a few tips for boosting immunity:

  • Eat well: try to maintain a diet high in fruits and vegetables! Other foods can also boost immunity:
  • Yogurt- contains live bacteria cultures that can help your gut stay healthy
  • Nuts- full of protein and antioxidants, nuts are powerhouses of energy and nutrients!
  • Leafy greens- also high in antioxidants, which promote optimal immune function
  • Fatty fish and Omega 3’s- omega three fatty acids strengthen cell walls (including membranes of immune cells!) and have been shown to improve mood, thereby fighting depression as well
  • Dark chocolate- releases endorphins and improves your mood!
  • Berries (i.e., blueberries)- provide vitamin C, A, fiber, and antioxidants which help fight infection!
  • Be physically active: while this can be difficult in fall and winter as the weather changes, you can make small goals like walking for 10-15 minutes daily. Even stretching and moving your body for 5 minutes every morning is an excellent place to start! 
  • Get enough sleep: Take a look at your sleep habits and environment as well- are you using blue light technology right before bed? Is your room a dark, quiet space? Is it too hot or too cold? Lack of sleep can affect your immune system and your recovery time when sick!
  • Avoid too much alcohol: if you drink, do this in moderation! Alcohol alters your immunity and is also a depressant to your central nervous system, meaning that it can lower your mood. This is because it impacts levels of serotonin and dopamine in the brain (these are “happiness chemicals”)
  • Take steps to avoid infection, like handwashing: with flu season approaching and the ever-present threat of COVID-19, maintaining proper hand hygiene and protocols like sneezing/coughing into your elbow are important
  • Try to minimize the impact of stress: since stress is a natural response to challenging situations, it is essentially unavoidable. However, there are strategies you can utilize to minimize its impact. Mindfulness meditation and deep breathing exercises are great tools for coping with stress! Making time for self-care and activities that bring you joy can also help you cope with stress. Having a solid support system and engaging in social activities (especially when the weather can be isolating!) are equally important stress reduction techniques. 

Again, as you can see, your immunity is connected to other aspects of your life, like sleep quality, food, and stress levels!

This week, I call on you to be kind to your body and mind. Your body is your physical vessel for wellness. Your mind is your psychological vessel for wellness. And, when you neglect either of these pieces of yourself, it can negatively impact your mood, stress levels, and immunity because these are all CONNECTED!

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Katie MacNeill

A Registered Psychotherapist (Qualifying) and promoter of health and mental wellness. Born and raised in Mississauga, she currently lives in Niagara with her sweet rescue dog Bailey. Katie is a sushi enthusiast, avid camper and loves to play board games. 

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