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Springing out of the Winter Blues: a Lifestyle and Nutrition Approach

By Lara Zakaria — © 3/2019

Most of us are dreaming of the warm, sunny days of Spring and Summer which can’t seem to come fast enough. But for many of us, the “Winter Blues” can hit us particularly hard. 

According to the National Institute for Health (NIH) an average of 5% of Americans suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), more commonly referred to as the “winter blues.”  In some areas of the country where winters are particularly long, and daylight hours are particularly short, it can be as high as 10%. Often they’re also associated with life stresses, like family, holidays, finances or work.

Associated with reduced sun exposure and shorter days, most people feel the onset in late Fall and early Winter. However, there are some people who exhibit the opposite pattern have symptoms that begin in spring or summer. 

Recognizing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Signs and symptoms of the winter blues may include:

  • Having lower energy than usual
  • Losing interest in activities, or feeling unmotivated or sluggish
  • Feeling depressed and/or anxious most of the day, nearly daily
  • Having trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Experiencing increase in appetite an/or weight gain
  • Difficulty concentrating

Symptoms often start out more mild, progress throughout the season if not addressed. For some they might manifest to clinical depression, panic attacks, and even thoughts of death or suicide.

SAD is thought to be triggered by changes in sunlight affecting our biological clock, known as our circadian rhythm. This may alter two key brain chemicals: serotonin and melatonin, affecting mood, appetite, and sleep.

Vitamin D3: Acontroversial player in SAD

Vitamin D3 has also been considered as a potential role in SAD. However, studies have shown conflicting outcomes of benefit of Vitamin D3 supplementation on mood. It’s interesting to note that often those studies that fail to show a benefit, either use dosage that are too low (less than 1,000 IU of Vitamin D3) so that blood levels where not optimized, or are not looking at a large enough sample. 

Since there are multiple benefits of optimizing Vitamin D3, and many of us aren’t able to get adequate light exposure in the winter to make enough to meet our needs, relying on foods naturally rich in vitamin D3 or taking a supplement, particularly during the winter might be beneficial. 

I recommend foods that are naturally good sources of D3 verse those that are fortified (like dairy). Cod liver oil, salmon, sardines, eggs (look for dark yellow/orange yolks) are all great sources of vitamin D, as well as key amino acid Tryptophan, B vitamins, and Zinc (keep this in mind, we’ll tie back to this a little later). Depending on your laboratory blood levels, you may require additional supplementation of between 1,000 – 5,000 IU per day. Your Functional Medicine trained nutritionist or physician can help guide you on how to optimize your levels.

Give in to your comfort food cravings

The foods I’m about to list are not only warm and satisfying, but are also full of nutrients that work together to support the biochemical pathways that help to boost mood. The added fiber supports healthy gut bacteria which has been shown to support improved cognition and mood. Additionally, the slow and steady boost of complex carbohydrates supports the transport of serotonin to the brain. Furthermore, when combined with protein sources rich in tryptophan and tyrosine, the key nutrients found in these foods including B vitamins (particularly B6, B12, and folate), vitamin C and D, and minerals (especially magnesium and zinc) necessary for neurotransmitter production.  

If you have a slow cooker, winter is a great time to experiment with tasty mood-boosting soups and stews with a variety of colorful and rich complex carbohydrates and fiber. Experiment with using more fall and winter vegetables with savory protein and healthy fats, minimizing cold salads and raw foods like juices and smoothies. 

Soups and stews are a perfect way to utilize more seasonal fiber-rich produce like:

  • Squash – a great source of minerals like magnesium and potassium, 
  • Potatoes are a great source of healthy gut promoting resistant starch, potassium, magnesium, folic acid, vitamin C.
  • Sweet potatoes, which contain iron, calcium, selenium, and they’re a good source of most of our B vitamins and vitamin C as well as beta carotene. 
  • Beets – support digestion, rich in minerals, and provide slow release of carbohydrates thanks to their fiber content.
  • Celeriac or celery root is a rich source of vitamin C, and several minerals
  • Carrots – aside from being a rich source of immune-boosting vitamin A, is also full of antioxidants and phytonutrients like beta-carotene, lutein, and cyanidins
  • Cruciferous veggies are rich in sulforaphane – a phytochemical associated with anti-depressant activity power, including Brussels sprouts, cabbage, turnips, and rutabaga. They’re also high in folate, vitamin C, and several important minerals that further support metal health. 
  • Onion and garlic, similarly to cruciferous veggies, are rich in sulfur compounds that promote improved mood, reduce inflammation, help to detoxify and balance hormones, and let’s face it, add amazing flavor
  • Organic and Pasteur raised eggs. Not only are the yolks rich in vitamin D, but also contain nutrients like choline, B vitamins, and omega 3 fats which support brain health and mood. The whites are a complete protein source, including key amino acids needed for supporting neurotransmitter production. 
  • Healthy fats sources like those found in the Mediterranean diet including olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds, are an important addition. Grass-fed ghee (clarified butter), is not only a good fat-source, but contains butyric acid which may also boost gut health. 

In addition to the synergistic power of all those ingredients, don’t shy away from experimenting with spices. Savory flavors like rosemary and sage, and warming spices like curry, ginger and turmeric not only lend marvelous flavor, but are also rich sources of antioxidants, reducing inflammation and supporting neurological health.

Light therapy for SAD

Bright-light therapy has proven to be an effective treatment for SAD, though it seems to be most effective when combined with nutritional interventions and therapy. Light boxes are usually transportable, flat screen devise that produce full-spectrum light. Several companies make versions you can keep at home, but some spas and health clubs offer light-box rooms. For them to be most effective, studies suggest using them daily for 30 to 60 minutes in the morning (before 10 AM).

Winter Hiking in Park City, Utah

Exercise and getting outdoors

Last but not least, many benefit significantly from spending more time outdoors and finding different ways to exercise. If you can invest in warm winter gear and take advantage of milder days outdoors, walk, run, hike, snowshoe, ski, or snowboard. If your usual workouts are interrupted by bad weather or cold, try a new sport that you can do indoors independent of the weather, like swimming, wall climbing, or spinning. Not only will the exercise do you good, but studies show that the focus on learning a new skill or hobby can also boost mood and reduce the Winter Blues.

Final Thoughts

To summarize, if you’re struggling with the Winter Blues, focus on food and lifestyle:

  • Embrace warm comfort foods with high fiber, good sources of protein and essential nutrients to support the production of mood-boosting chemicals in the brain.
  • If your vitamin D levels are low, supplement with a high-quality vitamin D3 your dose should be based on your blood work, on average most people need 3,000 IU daily to optimize their levels (but talk to your healthcare provider to optimize your levels based on your lab work).
  • Use light therapy, daily for 20-30 minutes a day in the morning. 
  • Especially if you’re having trouble sleeping, keep a regular routine. Go to sleep at the same time daily and avoid screens (especially the news) 1 hour before bedtime. Minimize alcohol and caffeine, especially in the evening, since it can affect sleep quality.
  • Incorporate exercise and try to find an outdoor activity that you enjoy, even in the winter.

If you need additional support, are feeling hopeless, or this lasts beyond the Winter months, don’t hesitate to seek out professional help from qualified therapist.