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Strategies to Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder: Embracing Wintering with Functional Medicine

As the vibrant colors of autumn fade into the stark whites and grays of winter, many individuals find themselves echoing this transition, not just in their environment but also in their emotional landscape. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) affects a significant portion of the population, casting a shadow over the colder months. As nurses and nurse practitioners focused on functional medicine and nutrition, I believe that we have the power to address SAD not only through traditional means but also by utilizing the concept of "wintering" – a mindful approach to embrace the cold season – and holistic nutrition strategies.

I was trying to think of a blog topic today, and I was looking out on the leaves falling and thinking about that term "wintering" that one of my students mentioned in our Zoom meeting the other day. I think making a habit of intentionally caring for ourselves more carefully through the cooler seasons is an important and timely topic, and I'm so glad she brought it up to the group!


Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder is more than just "winter blues." It's a cyclical condition linked to the reduction in daylight during fall and winter, and it is particularly a problem in place that are more grey in the winter like where I live in the Pacific Northwest! Symptoms can range from feelings of depression and lethargy to a disruption in sleep patterns and changes in appetite. In the realm of functional medicine, SAD is not merely treated symptomatically but is approached by looking at the interconnectedness of the body and environment.


The Role of Vitamin D and Sunlight


Vitamin D, the "sunshine vitamin," is often at a deficit during winter's short days, and its insufficiency is linked to depressive symptoms. Ensuring adequate vitamin D levels through supplementation, diet, and when possible, sunlight exposure, is essential. Nurses can play a pivotal role in patient education, encouraging activities such as brief midday walks and the use of light therapy boxes which mimic natural light, proving effective for many with SAD.


Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Nourishing the Brain

The brain's functionality is deeply connected to its nutritional intake, with Omega-3 fatty acids being one of the key components for mental health maintenance. Found in fish oil, flax seeds, and walnuts, Omega-3s can bolster brain health, potentially alleviating the symptoms of SAD. Functional medicine acknowledges the power of these nutrients and advocates for their increased presence in our diets during the winter months.


Mediterranean Diet: A Mood-Boosting Eating Pattern

The Mediterranean diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats, is renowned for its benefits concerning cardiovascular health and is now gaining attention for its potential to improve mood. The high fiber content, array of antioxidants, and healthy fats are believed to combat inflammation, which is often associated with depression. Adopting this dietary pattern can be a delightful and delicious part of a functional medicine approach to SAD.


The Gut-Brain Axis and Probiotics

Our digestive system, often referred to as our "second brain," plays a crucial role in our mental health through the gut-brain axis. A balanced gut microbiota, fostered by a diet rich in probiotics and fiber, can promote a positive mood and is particularly important in managing SAD. Integrative strategies include incorporating fermented foods, as well as fiber-dense vegetables and whole grains.


Embracing Wintering

In the heart of winter, when the days are short and the nights long, we encounter a concept that is as ancient as it is therapeutic – "wintering." This is a practice that teaches us the importance of slowing down, reflecting, and rejuvenating – a stark contrast to the fast-paced rhythms that often dominate our lives. It is the art of pausing, of finding comfort in the quiet and the cold, and of using this time for inner nourishment and growth.


Wintering isn't just a passive state; it's an active choice. It's about making the most of the natural retreat that winter offers and using it as a period of healing. In functional medicine, this translates to a time when we can focus on restoring our body’s balance and attending to our mental wellness with as much care as we give our physical health.


A Functional Medicine Perspective on Wintering

From the standpoint of functional medicine, wintering provides an opportunity to implement supportive nutritional and lifestyle strategies that are season-specific:


Nutritional Support: Emphasizing warming, nutrient-dense foods that align with the body’s natural desire for more substantial meals during the colder months. Think hearty soups, stews, and root vegetables that are rich in vitamins and minerals to support the immune system.


Restorative Practices: Encouraging practices that support the parasympathetic nervous system, such as gentle yoga, meditation, and deep breathing exercises. These activities help mitigate stress and promote relaxation, complementing the body's instinct to conserve energy during this time.


Social Connectivity: While wintering can mean drawing inward, it doesn't necessitate complete isolation. Functional medicine acknowledges the importance of social support and community for mental health. Thus, wintering can also be about deepening connections with loved ones in cozy, intimate settings.


Sleep Hygiene: The longer nights present a perfect opportunity to prioritize sleep – a critical component of health often neglected in our busy lives. Wintering encourages early bedtimes and full, restful nights of sleep, assisting the body's healing and regeneration processes.


Mindful Movement: Engaging in regular, mindful movement, even on the coldest days, helps maintain physical health and boosts mood. Whether it's a brisk walk in the crisp air or a home-based exercise routine, staying active is key.


Integrating Wintering into Care

As nurses and nurse practitioners, we can guide our patients through the process of wintering, helping them to see this time as a valuable interval for self-care. We can educate them on the benefits of adapting to the season’s rhythms rather than resisting them. It’s about embracing the natural cycle of rest that winter demands, allowing for a period of dormancy, much like the earth itself, to emerge rejuvenated in spring.


Wintering, in essence, becomes a form of medicine – one that aligns with the principles of functional medicine by treating the whole person. It is a reminder that sometimes, the best way to move forward is to allow ourselves to be still, to listen, and to heal from within.

Integrating Strategies for Patient Care

As nurse practitioners, we're in a unique position to integrate these nutritional and lifestyle strategies into our care plans. We can guide our patients not just towards the right supplements and diet but also in adopting a lifestyle that aligns with the season's natural rhythm.


Through a combined approach of dietary adjustments, lifestyle modifications, and an embrace of wintering, we can offer a holistic plan to manage SAD. In doing so, we honor the principles of functional medicine—treating the individual as a whole, with nutrition and self-compassion as our allies in the quest for well-being during all seasons.


The strategies outlined here are not only beneficial for those suffering from SAD but can also enhance overall health and well-being. Encourage patients to consult their healthcare providers before starting any new supplement regimen or making significant dietary changes, and as healthcare professionals, let's continue to support each other in our learning and practice. With a functional medicine approach, we can transform the cold months from a period of endurance into a season of wellness and rejuvenation.


Incorporating these strategies into patient care is both an art and a science, one that requires knowledge, compassion, and a dedication to the principles of functional medicine. If you're looking to deepen your understanding and expertise in integrating nutrition and lifestyle interventions into your practice, the course Functional Medicine for Nurses™ that I teach through the Integrative Nurse Coach Academy, in partnership with the Institute for Functional Medicine, offers training in functional medicine specifically for nurses and nurse practitioners. Our curriculum is designed for nurses like you, who are ready to lead the charge in transforming healthcare with a focus on holistic and patient-centered care. Empower yourself with the skills to not only help your patients navigate SAD but also to flourish in every season of their lives. Join us, and together, let's redefine health and healing.

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