During the long winter months, many begin to experience low energy, mood changes and even depression with shorter days. Many of these changes are contributed to seasonal depression, also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Typically, symptoms of seasonal depression become more apparent beginning in the fall and last throughout the winter, and they will usually be reoccurring with this seasonal change.
Although symptoms associated with seasonal depression vary for each individual, common symptoms include feeling sad or depressed, bad mood, anxiety, low energy, loss of interest in usual activities, sleep disturbances, cravings for carbohydrate-rich foods such as breads and pastas, weight gain, feeling sluggish or fatigued, and trouble concentrating.
Circadian rhythm is the natural rhythm contributing to the wake and sleep cycle the body experiences. During the fall and winter seasons, when sunlight exposure is limited, this internal clock becomes disrupted. When circadian rhythms are balanced, light triggers the release of the neurotransmitter serotonin, while darkness triggers the release of the hormone melatonin. Serotonin assists in regulating the appetite, sleep patterns and mood. The lack of sunlight can greatly reduce the production of serotonin, contributing to symptoms of depression. At the same time, shorter days increase the production of melatonin, making your body think it’s time to rest even when we should be awake.
Essential fatty acids, especially omega-3, encourage the release of endorphins as well as comprise the phospholipid layer of cells, including brain cells. A deficiency of essential fatty acids impairs cell membrane function and disrupts the normal function of neurotransmitter production. Neurological cell function has a direct impact on behavior, mood and mental function, in both supporting and disrupting.
Vitamin D is unlike many other vitamins because it is not easily obtained from food. Instead, the primary source of vitamin D is produced from the skin’s exposure to sunlight. During the winter months, when we are less likely to be outside and exposed to sunlight, vitamin D levels can be greatly reduced. Traditionally known for its contribution to bone health, vitamin D also supports other areas of the body and plays a role in depression. During the fall and winter months, a safe dose of vitamin D is 5000 IU per day.
What Can You Do?
Light therapy mimics natural sunlight and is different from a regular light bulb. Sitting in front of a light box or one of these special bulbs for 30 minutes per day stimulates the body’s circadian rhythms and suppresses its release of melatonin. Another option is a tanning bed that has a higher amount of UVB rays than the traditional tanning bed.
Regular exercise can be a powerful natural antidepressant with its ability to improve mood as well as decrease anxiety and depression. Those who engage in regular exercise have been shown to have higher self-esteem, feel better and are much happier than those who do not exercise. This “mood-elevating” effect can be greatly attributed to the increase of endorphins directly correlated with mood. Engaging in exercise earlier in the day is beneficial, as exercising in the evening suppresses melatonin production, making you more energized in the evening when you should be winding down.
Managing stress is extremely beneficial for hormone production and mood regulation. Engage in activities such as yoga, meditation, massage, acupuncture or even writing in a journal as an outlet. Stay social! Meet up with friends whose company you enjoy and look forward to seeing. Reducing stress, laughing and being social can greatly improve your mood while decreasing the effects of seasonal depression.
Brain Boosting Foods
Protein: Endorphins are comprised of amino acids, the building blocks of protein. Tryptophan is an especially important amino acid, as it is a precursor to serotonin. Sources of tryptophan include turkey, beef, pork, dairy, chicken, eggs and spinach. It is important to source clean animal protein that is pasture-raised. Grain-fed animals have lower levels of tryptophan. Vegetarians are at greater risk of tryptophan deficiency, as plant-based proteins contain less tryptophan than animal-based protein.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Consume 2-3 servings per week of wild-caught, cold water fish (herring, mackerel, salmon, sardines). Soaked nuts, especially walnuts are also a great source!
Don’t forget about fresh, organic fruit and vegetables! The brain requires vitamins and minerals for the conversation of proteins to endorphins. For a loaded dose of vitamins and minerals, try sprouting seeds. These sprouts are great on salads – remember to also add colorful fresh vegetables such as: beets, colored peppers, radishes, and tomatoes.